The developer of the largest portion of land slated for development in the Orcutt Area at the southern edge of San Luis Obispo wants to build homes higher up Righetti Hill than city plans currently allow.
The Righetti Ranch comprises about 144 acres of the 231-acre Orcutt Area Specific Plan.
The City Council, which must approve zoning changes, voted 4-1 last week to allow Ambient Communities to submit a formal application seeking the desired changes.
Mayor Jan Marx dissented, saying, “It is a real mistake to allow development and not a specific plan to determine where an urban reserve line is.”
At issue is how far development can climb up Righetti Hill. The urban reserve line determines where development ends and open space begins.
The developer wants to use 3.6 acres of open space along the lower portions of Righetti Hill to build homes. In trade, the developer is offering 4.2 acres of open space somewhere else on the property.
Under the council’s direction, the city will study the request and initiate an environmental review to determine possible impacts.
ouncil members made it clear that they wanted to protect the visual impact of the hill but were also open to exploring the developer’s request.
The Orcutt Area Specific Plan, adopted by the council in 2010, sets development guidelines for the area, with the intention of creating a balanced approach to protecting natural resources in the area while adding needed housing to the city.
The specific plan calls for up to 319 homes in the Righetti Ranch area.
However, the developer has said that without adjusting the city’s urban reserve line on Righetti Hill, fewer homes will have to be built.
“A healthy city needs to provide adequate housing opportunities for all of its residents,” Ambient Communities’ Travis Fuentes said at a council meeting. “We are looking for a minor amount of flexibility … it is pivotal in our ability to accomplish this and pay for it all.”
Critics of the change expressed concerns about the visual impact the change would have on what has long been a pastoral setting.
Neil Havlik, the city’s former Natural Resources Manager who helped broker the deal for the open space defined in the Orcutt Area plan, spoke adamantly against the change.
“The urban reserve line was designed to be low enough so development would not dominate the hill and to provide for the effective management of open space land,” Havlik told the council. “To recommend changing it now strikes me as a being a disservice to the community. Rather than adjusting the urban reserve line to accommodate housing numbers, adjust the housing numbers to accommodate the urban reserve line.”
Several people who own property in the area, both tied to the Righetti Ranch project and other future developments in the area, petitioned the council to allow the zoning change to be further analyzed.
Beverley Pratt, who owns more than 11 acres in the Orcutt Area, said the project that would result from the changes would be better for the community.
“This process took over 16 years, and there were a lot of different things to deal with,” Pratt said. “Sometimes it takes a fresh eye of a fresh developer …. This is visually more appealing compared to the old plan.”
Julie Jones, who owns a parcel adjacent to the Righetti Ranch, told the City Council she was waiting for the project to move forward so that she could build homes for her children and grandchildren nearby.
“We’ve spent the last 16 years working with neighbors to make this area plan work,” Jones said. “It has taken a lot of collaboration, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of working together to get where we are today …. Support the applicant’s amendment of the plan so that we can move forward. We have waited long enough.”
Property owners in the 231-acre Orcutt area fought for years to win the right to develop in the city.
In 2011, during a contentious election, residents of the Orcutt area voted to allow annexation by the city, paving the way for millions of dollars of residential and commercial development to fall under the city’s jurisdiction.
The area will eventually be developed to include nearly 1,000 new homes, a shopping center, a park and possibly a new school.