The fate of 231 acres and future residential and commercial development on the border of San Luis Obispo will be decided by a handful of voters Tuesday — many who registered to vote specifically to sway the special election.
The land at stake is the Orcutt area south of the city — bordered by Tank Farm Road to the south, Orcutt Road to the east and north and the Union Pacific Railroad to the west.If annexed, the city could gain 1,000 homes proposed for that area, as well as a shopping center and 80 acres of open space and parks.
On Tuesday, 55 voters will determine if it is annexed or not. The issue prompted nearly two dozen voters to either register to vote or change their registration status to the contested area in order to cast a ballot, according to a Tribune analysis of voter registration records.
Only residents who live on one of the 21 parcels in the area — or those who claim that they intend to make that their permanent residence one day — can vote. That includes renters.
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Several people on the list had been registered to vote in other cities in San Luis Obispo County in 2008, the Tribune analysis found.
However, when contacted, many said they moved to the area since 2008 or had neglected to update their voter registration until now.
The election was prompted when opponents of the plan to annex the area filed enough protest letters with the local agency in charge of reviewing the proposed annexation.
It was the first time in memory that such an election has been triggered in San Luis Obispo.
Sudden influx of voters
A surge in registered voters in the area began around the same time that it became apparent that the annexation might face one last hurdle.
Landowners on both sides of the issue have frantically urged eligible voters to make sure the election stacks in their favor.
In about a month’s time — from mid-June to late July — 21 of the 55 voters eligible to vote in Tuesday’s election registered to vote in the area. An additional six voters were added through Oct. 31 — the last day to register to vote for the election.
Many of the new voters are family members, friends and tenants of the 13 landowners in the area, according to The Tribune’s investigation of public records and interviews.
County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald said the election code allows for people to have multiple residences but use a permanent home, known as a domicile, as the place they register to vote.
Whether many of the new registrants are telling the truth or not is not up to her office to decide, Rodewald said.
“The voter registration form is signed under penalty of perjury,” Rodewald said. “We are not the judge and jury. We have to go on the face of what we have.”
Lory Farrior, a landowner and leader in the movement against the annexation, has spent hours working her way through the list of registered voters and is convinced that many of them live nowhere near the area. Jeanne Helphenstine, who co-owns the 145-acre Righetti Ranch with her mother, Barbara Parsons, and initiated the annexation process more than 14 years ago, was registered to vote in Arroyo Grande in 2008. She changed her registration in July to the ranch’s address when she moved there after selling her home in Arroyo Grande, she said.
Even Farrior has used the process to her advantage, encouraging a daughter and the two tenants living at her home on the corner of Orcutt Road and Johnson Avenue to register to vote.Both instances are allowed under elections code.
If someone is fraudulently registered in the area, it will be up to the courts to decide if prompted by a civil lawsuit, Rodewald said.
“Something like this can be pretty frustrating from our point of view,” she said. “We get caught in the middle of it, and if people are using the system for their own purposes, then it will definitely be dealt with, but it may be difficult to prove.”
A lot is at stake. The stretch of open hillside could eventually be developed to include nearly 1,000 new homes, a shopping center, 20 acres of parks and open space, including Righetti Hill, and possibly a new school. Complete development is expected to take up to 30 years.
A majority vote, 50 percent plus one, is needed to overturn the annexation approved by the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission in April.
The majority of the 13 property owners, who own the largest parcels of land in the area, want to develop within city limits.
But under the rules of this special election, the property owners won’t get the final say on annexation. Rather, it will be determined by which side was able to register the greater number of voters on its properties.San Luis Obispo officials want to annex the property. The city, which in 2010 adopted a specific plan for the area to manage the growth there, paid for the annexation application to show its support for the future development of the area within city limits.
Those landowners who don’t want the annexation say their land will eventually be impacted by new roads needed to accommodate additional traffic and the rural setting they’ve enjoyed will cease to exist.Ernest and Julia Jones, who own a large parcel off Orcutt Road and favor annexation and development, will have seven votes cast in the election, because seven people live on their property.
“There is a very small minority of people who know how to interfere with the rights of other individuals,” said Timothy Jones, who said he moved to the family property with his wife two years ago. “The problem with all of this is that the process allows not just landowners but just registered voters to have a say on something it seems like landowners should be in control of.”
As of Friday, 41 of the 55 ballots had been returned to the county clerk’s office. The remaining ballots must be turned in by 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Orcutt area voters
Of the 55 voters currently registered in the Orcutt area:
5 were found to be registered in another city in San Luis Obispo County in 2008.
27 have registered since June.