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SLO annexation plan sparks fervent fight in Orcutt Road area

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

It has divided friendships and tarnished childhood memories. It has pitted neighbors against each other and led others to feel hopeless about a future they once held as certain.

A long-fought battle by a group of property owners in the Orcutt area south of the city to annex their property into San Luis Obispo for future development faces one last, surprising hurdle.

The annexation was approved by the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission in April. However, a protest hearing Monday will determine if that decision stays. Those against the annexation say they will do whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen. They’ve spent hours, weeks, months, studying the process.

In the end, it will all come down to numbers. If enough registered voters from the area — of which there are 37 — protest the decision, it will trigger an election for those few. And ultimately, that vote will decide if the annexation will occur.

The city sees potential

The contested 231-acre area stretches south from the city limits to the intersection of Orcutt and Tank Farm roads.

The bucolic stretch of open hillside would eventually be developed to include nearly 1,000 new homes, a shopping center, a park and possibly a new school.

The majority of the 13 property owners, who own the largest parcels of land in the area, want to develop. And they want to do it in the city’s domain.

They’ve worked for years and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a specific plan approved by city for the future development.

But others living in the area say they don’t want it, expressing concerns about how their land will be eventually impacted with new roads needed to accommodate additional traffic and an end to the rural setting that they’ve long favored.

For more than 30 years, the Orcutt area has been identified by the city as having potential for residential expansion. City leaders have long expressed support of the project moving forward as a way to meet the city’s need for growth.

However, those who are against it say that their rights are being ignored for the financial gain of others.

Keeping it as is

Jerry Imel, 73, lives on a 6-acre property in the Orcutt area and cares for his mother, who has lived there since 1943.

When he talks about the area, his thoughts include stories of decades of life there and how in recent years arguments over the area’s future have led to confusion, fear and distrust among neighbors.

Imel said his family has always been against the annexation. They have no desire to develop the property.

“We are sitting here and just want to be left alone,” Imel said. “This little area is like an island with the city all around us. I know it is going to change, but this is not what I want to pass on to our children.”

Imel said proponents of the plan have long tried to calm him by reminding him that development is at least 15 to 20 years away.

“That’s kind of insensitive to an old person,” Imel said. “It’s like saying you are going to be dead and gone, so don’t worry about it. But they’ll never just say that.”

The family has recently received letters in the mail from other property owners trying to convince them that this is what they want. But it’s not, Imel said.

“There have been a lot of things said, and a lot of people’s feelings hurt,” Imel said. Ed Garay, son of Paul and Dolores Garay, lives adjacent to one of the largest parcels slated for development: the Righetti Ranch.

The owners of that 145-acre property, Barbara Parsons and daughter Jeanne Helphenstine, initiated the specific plan process and have gained a number of supporters along the way.

The Garay family is not one. But the families used to be close.

Garay said that his childhood memories include visiting with Parsons’ father Allen Righetti, climbing the hill on his property and bringing each other milk.

“We were family friends and neighbors, but now this whole thing has just divided everyone here,” Garay said.

Garay said his grandparents worked hard to buy the 14-acre property and that while his grandmother was still alive, she told him to “keep fighting” to save it.

He said that despite being outnumbered over the years, he still has hope that at Monday’s protest hearing enough people will come forward to give his family one last chance to stop annexation.

A neighborhood divided

Involving all of the neighbors wasn’t always Barbara Parsons’ plan.

“We were totally surrounded by the city on three sides and wanted to do something with our property,” Parsons said. “We didn’t want to get involved with 13 other property owners and 21 parcels of land. It was the city’s decision to do a specific plan.”

That said, Parsons added, she stands by what has been achieved over the years and believes it to be in everyone’s benefit. The plan, she added, doesn’t change anyone’s property status until they decide to develop.

“There is no reason for this protest,” Parsons said. “To suddenly come up to this protest is very disheartening.”

Lory Farrior, who bought a house at Orcutt Road and Johnson Avenue 11 years ago, has been a leader in the movement against the annexation.

She’s knocked on doors and passed out voter registration cards and protest forms. She has read the voluminous specific plan multiple times and is prepared to do whatever it takes to stop the annexation from happening.

Farrior recently made an impassioned, tearful plea to the City Council that she would do everything she could to stop the plan, which she believes could eventually lead to the tearing down of a tree in her front yard from which her 7-year-old daughter’s swing now hangs.

Farrior said she’s confident enough residents in the area will protest the annexation and that they’ll win the election.

Parsons said she was shocked recently to learn that if an election is triggered that the whole project could fall into the hands of people other than the landowners.

On Monday, if 10 of the 37 registered voters living in the area protest, it will go to an election for just those 37 voters.

“It is a very sad state of affairs because people can run around giving misinformation to tenants and secure their protest, and they don’t have the vaguest idea about the process or anything,” Parsons said.

Parsons acknowledges that the last 14 years have caused irreparable rifts between some neighbors.

“And for no logical reason,” Parsons said. “It’s come down to personalities, and after a while, there is just absolutely nothing you can do.”

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