East of the tasting room at Laetitia Vineyard and Winery, acres of pinot noir and chardonnay grapevines line the rolling hills of rural Arroyo Grande in uninterrupted rectangles as far as the eye can see.
In five years, something else could be popping up among those vines: homes.
Janneck Limited, representing winery owner Selim Zilkha, has proposed subdividing a portion of the 1,910-acre property east of the winery’s tasting room into 101 one-acre residential lots that would be sold to individuals who wish to live among the winery’s vineyards.
The project, an agricultural cluster called the Reserve at Laetitia, would group those lots into eight clusters spread across the majority of the property.
About 1,787 acres of the property would be preserved with open-space agreements, with the homes and other small developments taking up the remaining acreage.
The ag cluster is scheduled to go before the county Planning Commission on Thursday — after 11 years of planning and project redesigns — though it will face a hard road to approval.
In a 41-page report, county planning staff recommends that the commission deny the project because of findings from the environmental impact report listing more than a dozen significant, unavoidable impacts to winery operations, traffic, trees, air quality and emergency services, among other issues.
The project has also failed to get widespread support from neighboring Nipomo residents, who believe it will stress area water resources. Since the project was officially proposed in 2008, the county has received 104 letters from individuals in opposition to the project and only one in support.
“I’m kind of taken aback by the lengths they went to say this is a bad project,” project manager Victor Montgomery said last week of the county recommendation. “They’ve asserted that it doesn’t meet their standards, but — and I don’t know how else to say this — they are wrong.”
If the five-member commission denies the project, Montgomery said the proponents will appeal the decision to the county Board of Supervisors.
Dispute over impacts
County Planner Brian Pedrotti, who prepared the staff report, said the Class I unavoidable impacts range “from air resources, biological resources — that’s the oak trees — into problems with a dead-end road on the property for emergency access.”
In all, the environmental impact report found 15 Class I environmental impacts:
• Two related to visibility of project elements from neighboring roads or parcels.
• Two related to loss of farmland or land of importance.
• Two related to increased air pollutants.
• Two related to increased traffic during peak times on Highway 101.
• Two related to problems with the proposed emergency vehicle access at Laetitia Vineyard Drive.
• One for land-use conflicts that would potentially compromise productivity at the existing agricultural operation.
• One for removal and impacts to 169 coast live oak trees and 14.35 acres of native oak woodland habitat.
• One for inconsistencies with Cal Fire requirements for maximum road lengths.
• One for exposing the potential parcel residents to noises related to the site’s agricultural operations.
• One for increasing the demand for emergency services personnel and facilities beyond what Cal Fire and other emergency services can provide at this time.
Though Janneck Limited has proposed mitigation measures for some of the impacts, such as the emergency vehicle access and increased demand on emergency services, Pedrotti said the county couldn’t confirm those measures would take place because it does not have control over decisions by outside agencies such as Caltrans and Cal Fire, which would need to be involved in the proposed mitigation measures. Therefore, planners couldn’t list those as lesser, mitigated impacts.
Besides the impacts, the county also found a major issue with the project’s “sprawling design” — 101 lots spread across eight clusters — which Pedrotti said contradicts the nature of an agricultural cluster.
He defined an agricultural cluster as “the clustering of allowable residential units on small parcels of agricultural and rural land, usually in a tight cluster formation.”
Pedrotti said that in order to comply with county regulations, the project would need to be entirely redesigned with fewer parcels clustered closer together. He suggested a maximum of 74 lots, spread across one or two clusters, though more than two clusters “might be appropriate depending on the ultimate design and reduction of impacts on the environment.”
Of the 104 letters opposing the project, Pedrotti said, 63 were sent after the first environmental impact report issued in 2008 and 41 were for the current proposed project (many from the same writers as in 2008).
Refuting the report
Montgomery claimed the majority of the impacts and problems the staff report listed are nonexistent or were mitigated in the project proposal. Among his points:
He said there would be no loss of grapevines because 113 acres of vines displaced by the proposed parcels would be replanted elsewhere on the property. He denied the county’s statement that the vines would not be guaranteed to thrive in their new locations.
As for the oak trees, Montgomery claimed only seven trees would be removed, not 169 trees.
Regarding concerns that agricultural operations would be interrupted by residents living in the middle of the vines, Montgomery said he has not heard of any such problems in other ag clusters, and he noted that all potential residents would sign an agreement that says they understand their residential comfort comes second to the property’s agricultural operations.
He said only the increased air pollutants impact is valid.
“And that (impact) is true of any building project of this size in the county,” Montgomery said. “You can’t avoid that.”
He also refuted claims that the project would significantly increase the number of residents in the area, saying that in the long run, the cluster could help restrict the population density.
“If we just let the land be sold off in pieces, the impact would be much greater,” he said, noting that by county regulations, two homes could be built on each parcel that is sold. Moreover, he said, the process of further subdividing a parcel to allow for more homes would be “easy.”
The water question
Though it was still a concern, water availability was not one of the major impacts found in the environmental impact report. It listed water demand and supply as a lesser Class II impact — a significant impact that can be mitigated.
Water for the development would come from four of the property’s 15 wells, which draw from fractured rock aquifers.
Janneck Limited has proposed establishing a mutual water company to manage the water delivery system, as well as building a new tertiary wastewater treatment and disposal system on the property to recycle water for irrigation. The new homes would have strict water-use restrictions, such as prohibiting more than 300 square feet of turf grass and allowing a total of 1,500 square feet of irrigated landscaping.
The development, once fully built, would use an estimated 46.3 acre-feet of water a year, according to the county report.
Montgomery said the winery owner conducted a series of water-pumping and monitoring tests with an independent hydrogeologist over a two-year period to determine whether the property’s wells could sustain a project of this size. Those tests also were reviewed by a county-selected hydrogeologist and a third-party consultant.
The sustainable yield for the existing wells on the property was determined to be 62.4 acre-feet a year.
Though the estimated water use is less than the estimated sustainable yield, the majority of comments submitted to the county regarding the project were worries that it still would endanger already tight water resources.
“I expressed concern because I have learned of several neighbors whose well water has been depleted substantially during this drought,” Nipomo resident Glen Larsen wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Can the planners guarantee that the amount of water that Laetitia will require for their project be sustainable? Not really. What would my recourse be if I ran out of water and suspected that Laetitia’s deep wells might be a cause? None.”
Larsen and his wife, Linda Larsen, were among several residents living near the Laetitia property who have spoken out against the project, with their main concerns being water resources, potential dust and increased neighborhood traffic.
James Toomey, who lives near the Laetitia property, is a member of the Nipomo Hills Alliance, an advocacy group that has led the charge against the proposed ag cluster.
“We just don’t have the water,” he said Friday. “We have people around Laetitia who are having to purchase expensive truckloads of water each week because their wells have run dry. Why should they have to do that, while Laetitia is suggesting increasing its water consumption by 20 to 26 percent?”
Project hydrogeologist Spencer Harris noted that, despite public perception that there would not be enough water, the county-hired consultant agreed the water supply would be sufficient.
“We’ve done extensive research and work into this,” he said. “Yes, there is enough water.”
Pedrotti confirmed the county’s third-party water consultant had also concluded there was sufficient water for the project, but he noted that the conclusion relied in part on the proposed water conservation measures that would have to be followed by homeowners in the development.
The cluster question
Montgomery said he was not positive why the planners recommended denial of the project, though he had an idea: “I think this is a hangover from Santa Margarita Ranch,” he said.
The county approved an ordinance allowing agricultural clusters in the 1980s. In 2003, when applicant Janneck Limited first began working on the Laetitia project, an agricultural cluster was recommended.
While the project was put on hiatus several times over the years for redesigns and environmental studies, several other agricultural clusters were approved in the county.
Notable is Margarita Vineyard Estates, the first part of a Santa Margarita Ranch proposal.
The Margarita Vineyard Estates cluster was narrowly approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2008, but construction was delayed because of years of legal wrangling and environmental study. Developer Rob Rossi said in January that construction could begin in 2016, pending an additional study on fairy shrimp. The cluster calls for 111 homes on 1- to 1.5-acre lots in a 3,778-acre agricultural cluster subdivision.
The Board of Supervisors later made moves in 2012 to place further restrictions on clusters, but it ultimately tabled the issue.
Montgomery said following controversy over the Santa Margarita project, he thinks the county is now more hesitant about approving agricultural clusters. As evidence, Montgomery points to the approval process for the Biddle Ranch ag cluster in rural Arroyo Grande, a project he also designed.
Montgomery said that when the Biddle Ranch/Talley Vineyards cluster was approved in 2004 prior to the Santa Margarita ranch debate, the staff report was “light and tight” and had only four Class I impacts listed.
“I used the same knowledge and design skills I did with Laetitia as I did with Talley, and yet they are telling me I did the latest project all wrong,” he said. “Drive through those other clusters, and tell me how horrible they are.”
Montgomery says the only explanation for the planners’ recommendation is a change in philosophy.
“The land-use ordinance says, ‘Do clustering,’ ” he said. “We did clustering, and it’s clearly apparent that they don’t like it.”
Pedrotti said he doesn’t think the Santa Margarita ag cluster has significantly impacted how the county views and approves clusters, although he did say he thinks the county has “learned from other ag clusters that tighter clusters are much more preferable.”
“I think the county thinks ag clusters are a very good tool when they are used properly,” he said. “That’s not the problem here. It’s this project specifically. It needs to be tighter and have fewer parcels.”