Eagle Ranch advances in Atascadero, but tax issues linger

In a lengthy meeting with Atascadero’s top leaders Tuesday night, the proposed Eagle Ranch project passed another major hurdle.

But the housing development could be all for naught if a new tax-sharing deal tied to the annexation project is not first struck with San Luis Obispo County. 

In a special joint meeting, the City Council and Planning Commission unanimously decided that enough information has been gathered to start a feasibility study of how the 3,460-acre project could impact traffic, the environment and density. 

The study will help the council determine whether to approve the development.

The meeting drew about 100 people; roughly a dozen spoke against the project, some also noting that parts of the development were positive.

Tax split questioned

The City Council expressed concerns about impacts on public services as well as what was described as an unfair division of property taxes.

“I absolutely do not believe in shifting costs to existing residents,” Mayor Tom O’Malley said. “I’m looking at a lot of issues that need to be monitored through this (study) process. Those are the major concerns for me.”

Specifically, he mentioned the county’s current tax-sharing agreement for properties annexed by cities. Two-thirds of an annexed property’s taxes go to the county, while one-third goes to the city. 

Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi said this division of tax revenues is unfair; the city gets all the risk with only part of the benefit.

Councilwoman Heather Moreno supported the study but initially said she would like to see the property tax shares divided differently before the study is done.

“Not sure we can even consider making a decision until we figure that out,” Councilman Bob Kelley said.

Neighbors still worried

Eagle Ranch has been a contentious issue for the past five years because of disagreements between landowners Greg and Jeff Smith of Ventura and area residents over the development’s existence in the rustic area.

For decades, Atascadero has eyed Eagle Ranch as an area for potential growth. That’s because its 452 lots were already mapped out in the original Atascadero Colony blueprint drawn up by Atascadero founder E.G. Lewis in the early 1900s.

On Tuesday, neighbors continued to express worries about traffic, lights, construction, poor escape routes in case of fire and general effects on their homes.

One speaker, Oliver Smith, lives at one potential project entrance off Atascadero Avenue as it meets Highway 101. He said a traffic light outside his house would be a bad fit.

“This will currently destroy the value of my home, as I see it,” he said. 

Other concerned residents said they think the project looks nice and appreciate the developers’ willingness to exchange ideas, but fear the development is simply too large for the area.

“The trails, hotels and restaurants sound nice, but they don’t make me want to jump on board. None of these enticements woo me,” resident Nancy Hyman said.

Project scale at issue

The debate over what the project should look like has transformed the plan: It has shrunk from a much larger project with school sites and small-lot homes to a scaled-back approach with larger lots.

City staffers said the public’s concerns will be part of the feasibility study.

The most recent proposal calls for the following:

• A total of 494 single-family homes ranging from half-acre to 20-acre lots.

• Ninety-three town homes, senior housing or apartments.

• A commercial village center.

• One hotel and one resort.

• A public park.

• Sixteen miles of trails — all to be built over at least two decades. 

Seventy-three percent of the land would remain open space.

An additional 3,100 acres of ranch not part of the proposal is the subject of negotiations with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County for preservation.

The feasibility study, paid for by the developer, is slated to take 12 to 18 months after the council finalizes the consultant contract with Irvine-based Michael Brandman Associates in April.