Orcutt area annexation will be up to voters

The fate of the long-sought annexation of a 231-acre stretch of land in the Orcutt area southeast of San Luis Obispo will be determined by the registered voters living there.

Opponents of the plan filed enough protest letters with the agency in charge of approving the annexation to trigger a special election.

It is the first time in more than a decade that such an election has been achieved, said David Church, the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission.

The disputed area stretches south from the city limits to the intersection of Orcutt and Tank Farm roads. It could 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. The city has already approved a land-use plan for the area, which would dictate how future development unfolds.

“When we found out that it was going to a vote, we had a sigh of relief,” said Jeanne Helphenstine, who is co-owner of the 145-acre Righetti Ranch with her mother, Barbara Parsons. They initiated the annexation process more than 14 years ago.

Opponents could have derailed the annexation completely if 50 percent of the registered voters in the area had protested.

The annexation was approved by the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission in April.

However, an unexpected opposition to the project gathered enough support to submit 22 valid written protests at the commission’s protest hearing Monday.

Opponents needed only 25 percent of registered voters in the affected area to file protest letters to trigger the election. Forty-one percent of the voters protested the annexation.

The city of San Luis Obispo will now be required to hold an election for the 54 voters living in the area, Church said. A majority vote, 50 percent plus one, would be needed to overturn the annexation, he said.

In a flurry of anticipation leading up to the protest hearing, an additional 17 people registered to vote in the area. That brought the number of registered voters to 54 from the 37 who were counted in mid-June.

Those who want to develop the area have worked for years and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a land-use plan approved for future development.

Those against the plan say they are concerned about how their land will be eventually affected.

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. The city is the applicant for the annexation.

“It is definitely a last-minute change in sentiment,” city planner Phil Dunsmore said. “By not approving the annexation, we are left between a rock and hard place.”

Dunsmore said that even without the annexation, the property owners could proceed to develop their properties and seek individual annexation from the city.

“But it would make development in that area disjointed and not as organized as it should be,” he said.