Tribune analysis: Development denial tells tale of two boards

When the Board of Supervisors shot down a proposed 389-home development on 550 acres northwest of San Miguel last week, it sent several strong messages that would very likely not have been dispatched a year ago, when an altogether different board approved a contentious housing development in Santa Margarita.

This 2009 group of supervisors:

The development in question was proposed by Brent Grizzle. It would have nearly doubled the size of San Miguel by creating a de facto community northwest of the small North County town.

Grizzle’s San Miguel Ranch proposed a commercial center and 389 homes — 318 of them single-family dwellings — on 550 acres.

Forty people lined up to testify to the board, and they were evenly split between those who wanted San Miguel Ranch built and those who didn’t.

There were points of agreement. Everyone said they liked the “old” San Miguel, the stretch of Mission Street that runs through town.

They all concurred that Mission Street can use some financial help to make it “vibrant.”

The key question was, would Grizzle’s development create that help? On that there was little unanimity.

Grizzle and others, including Supervisor Frank Mecham, said a population base is necessary to grow business.

But others said the supposed new folks in town would hop on the freeway at San Miguel Ranch and head south to shop in Paso Robles.

Because San Miguel Ranch would be so far out of town, there was no guarantee that it would bring significant revenue to the old section or create any businesses there, many speakers said.

Nor could speakers and county planners agree on how much infill there is between the old town and the new development. Planners said more; Grizzle and his backers said less.

Planners said the land should be developed systematically, beginning with the existing community. Others said if there are vacant lots and boarded-up buildings in the old town, it is because the property owners cannot afford exorbitant county fees to develop housing.

At the Planning Commission hearing, Commissioner Anne Wyatt agreed with the planning staff that San Miguel has room to grow but said the way to do it is with a comprehensive community plan, not one big development.

In the end, supervisors went with that sentiment.

Supervisors also listened to the many voices of opposition to San Miguel Ranch from county staff, and here they set a starkly different tone from the Board of Supervisors that sat at the podium last year.

A year ago, a different development, Santa Margarita Ranch, came before the board. The county’s planning staff raised many questions, which were taken to heart by Supervisors Jim Patterson and Bruce Gibson.

But that board had three supervisors — a majority — who were impatient with the fetters that planned growth puts on developers and the toll it takes on their pocket books.

Voters had thrown two of the three, Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt, off the board in the June 2008 primary, but their replacements were not to be sworn in until January 2009.

Lenthall and Ovitt made the most of their lame-duck tenure, joining with Supervisor Katcho Achadjian in leading a raucous approval process for the Santa Margarita Ranch over several days of hearings that lasted through Dec. 23.

In January, Adam Hill was sworn in to replace Lenthall, and Frank Mecham took over for Ovitt.

Mecham and Hill were on opposite sides of the San Miguel Ranch issue, but they treated each other, and those who opposed them, with civility, as they have sought to do all year.

No attorneys or developers came to the podium at the last minute to rewrite county documents, as happened with the Santa Margarita project.

And Hill joined with Patterson and Gibson — the three have formed a new board majority that is generally sympathetic to their professional staff — in taking seriously the staff’s questions about the San Miguel Ranch.

Those questions ranged from whether it was a good idea to take the ranch’s agricultural land out of production to whether there was enough water. The staff identified 21 serious impacts the development would create.

Finally, and this was a striking contrast to the previous board, supervisors said they sympathized with the money Grizzle spent. But they added that he was a businessman and had gone ahead with his proposal despite having plenty of warning that it might not fly.

As Hill bluntly put it, Grizzle “knew what he was getting into. He rolled the dice and went forward; that’s a business decision.”

Hill later wrote The Tribune in an e-mail: “He took a gamble, a political one, and while he had three votes in 2005 … despite all the objections and issues, most people in the county now want to see us grow in a sustainable and responsible manner.”

Several observers said they could not imagine those sentiments coming from Lenthall or Ovitt, and they did not come from Achadjian on Tuesday. The South County businessman sought a way to help out Grizzle, but the board found none.