Facing criticism, SLO County supervisors put off changes to ag-cluster ordinance

A controversial growth-control ordinance has been shelved indefinitely by county supervisors, in part because they didn’t want to be seen as ramming through legislation just before a new supervisor with a different mindset who could change the outcome takes office in January.


Supervisors made clear that they have problems as well with the substance of the updated ag cluster ordinance.


But following a barrage of incendiary criticism that included accusations that they were trying to destroy property rights, they opted Tuesday to wait until next year or beyond, when Debbie Arnold will have replaced Jim Patterson on the board.


Patterson, Adam Hill, and Bruce Gibson have for four years formed an environmental majority on the board. Arnold campaigned this year on an anti-regulation platform, and is expected to join with Frank Mecham and Paul Teixeira to run the county in a way that is less amenable to costly and time-consuming regulations.


Hill suggested the delay as a matter of “hard-boiled pragmatism.” Arguing that many opponents of the ordinance are in “a state of complete dislike, a state of complete distrust” toward county government, he said the board needs to slow down so it can “lower the temperature.”


He said the county should be making decisions in a political climate that allows more thought and better analysis, and uses “a calmer and more collegial tone.”


The delay is indefinite, but planners said they can have a progress report on would-be changes in February and another in October.

Gibson sought and received a “good faith” assurance from Mecham and other supervisors that they won’t shelve the proposal for keeps, as many in the audience requested.


“I won’t support turning this down,” Mecham said.


Closing loopholes


The county has been working for four years to close what Hill, Gibson, and Patterson consider loopholes in the ag cluster ordinance, a planning tool that allows landowners to preserve their rural land and build on their property simultaneously by “clustering” or concentrating the houses on a small portion of the land.


The cluster ordinance has been on the books since 1984, but didn’t get much use or attention until four years ago, when a pair of lame-duck supervisors, Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt, joined a third supervisor, Katcho Achadjian, is approving the Santa Margarita Ranch development.


Many, including Patterson, said the development thumbed its nose at the ordinance by spreading out the houses rather than clustering them.


At the time of that vote in late 2008, Hill had been elected to replace Lenthall, but had not been sworn in. The board majority – dubbed “The Three Amigos” by some – pushed through the Santa Margarita Ranch proposal after a highly contentious series of hearings viewed by many as a decision hurried to head off Hill’s ascendancy.


Hill was mindful of that history on Tuesday. He did not want the current majority to be seen as “The Three Amigos” redux.


It wasn’t all about politics Tuesday. Hill and others said the proposal had many questions and needs work in several areas including:


n  taking a new look at density bonuses, which allow additional houses if they are more tightly clustered;

n  impact on water supplies;


n  notifying the public effectively about hearings on such ordinances;


n  economic impacts; and


n  the effect on property rights.


United Nations agenda?

The board’s postponement followed a contentious hearing during which audience members excoriated them for seeking to approve the changes.

Many complaints were policy-oriented, but a recurring theme was property rights.

When Gibson said the board had to balance individual property rights with the best interests of the county as a whole, for example, he was booed.

“You disagree with that?” Patterson, eyebrows raised, asked the audience.

Several speakers also warned that the county is developing growth policies that align with United Nations directives.

“Stop implementing collectivism!” one said. Another said the county should purge the planning staff of socialists. Yet another speaker likened the board to Nazis before they carried out the Holocaust.

There was little support for the ordinance. One speaker in favor said it had been in the works for four years and Patterson noted that the county’s Water Resources Advisory Committee, Agriculture Liaison Advisory Board, and Planning Commission had studied the proposal and approved it.

Nonetheless, Patterson joined the other four in delaying the ordinance until next year or later, after he has left the Board of Supervisors.