Airport Land Use Commission OKs shelter in flight path

Barraged by calls to show compassion for the homeless, the Airport Land Use Commission on Wednesday grudgingly allowed an exception to its land use plan to move forward a proposal for a homeless campus on South Higuera Street.

The commission’s decision to read its rules flexibly rather than rigidly was 6-1, with Vern Dahl the sole dissenting voice.

City and county leaders asked the commission to formally declare the “unique circumstances” that would let the proposed 200-bed homeless campus at 3751 S. Higuera St. move through the city’s planning process despite it being “obviously not consistent with… strict application of (land use) policies,” as county planner Bill Robeson put it.

The site is in the flight path of planes leaving and arriving at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, which brought it under the commission’s jurisdiction.

The focus on the homeless rather than safety irked several commissioners.

“This commission doesn’t do homeless shelters,” Chairman Roger Oxborrow said, after numerous people stressed how needed the campus is.

“It’s going to happen,” he said, referring to a plane crash at the site. Commissioner Gerrit Vanderziel concurred.

Nonetheless, the pair voted with the majority, as did a reluctant Bob Tefft, who said voting “no” could delay a homeless campus for five years at minimum.

“There is no other site that would be feasible in the short term,” Tefft said.

The vote was a tacit concession to Commissioner Tracy DelRio’s contention that the campus would be “good for the entire community” and that the need for it outweighed “the theoretical idea that a plane is going to crash in a 1-acre lot.”

The commission vote followed a two-hour hearing at which more than a dozen people argued that the county’s homeless population is growing, and the county must act now. Many of those who spoke have been involved in the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, now in its second year.

County Supervisor Adam Hill called the fight against homelessness “a moral engagement.”

He said that on any given night, about 3,800 people are homeless in San Luis Obispo County, and one-third of them are children. The number has grown, he and others said, as the economy has worsened.

“Women and children are becoming homeless at an accelerating rate,” Los Osos resident Judith Schloss wrote the commission. “Homeless individuals and families ... need ... a place to shelter at night; to shower, wash their clothes, eat a hot meal and find a place of safety.”

“More and more families are being affected by the economic downturn,” wrote the Rev. Mark Richardson, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Los Osos and president of the Central Coast Clergy and Laity for Justice.

The site on South Higuera would add beds and other amenities, and create a sort of “one-stop” venue where the homeless could deal with many needs, from food to shelter to counseling.

It would be next door to an existing Department of Social Services building, on county-owned land about a block away from the Prado Day Center. A shelter there would mean those advocating the facility would not have to go out and buy land elsewhere, a major advantage.

Some commissioners nonetheless suggested other locations owned by government agencies, but many of those, such as land next to San Luis Obispo High School or near Laguna Lake, would almost certainly face major neighborhood opposition.

Getting past the Airport Land Use Commission does not guarantee a smooth ride to the finish line for the homeless campus, but a “no” vote could have delayed it. The City Council had the power to override a “no” vote.

The proposal now moves forward through the city planning department.