Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said Ancient Peaks Winery is owned by the Filipponi, Rossi and Wittstrom families.
After years of delays and controversy, developer Rob Rossi hopes to begin construction of the Santa Margarita Ranch development sometime next year.
The project recently cleared a significant hurdle when the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors approved court-ordered air quality mitigation fees. One last task remains — surveying for fairy shrimp — before construction can begin.
“Preparation of engineering plans is underway and groundbreaking is anticipated in 2016,” said Rossi, one of three owners of the ranch. The others are Doug Filipponi and Karl Wittstrom.
The project, called Margarita Vineyard Estates, was conceived in 2008 and calls for 111 homes to be built on 1- to 2.5-acre lots in a 3,778-acre agricultural cluster subdivision. It is the beginning of a larger development planned for the 14,000-acre ranch that includes wineries and 550 homes and other facilities.
The county has approved the project’s environmental impact report, which is a major hurdle, but development beyond the approved 111 homes will require additional permits and regulatory oversight by the county.
Rossi said it could take 10 years to complete the 111-home development, which is broken down into three separate phases. He had originally planned on beginning the development in 2008 but appeals and a lawsuit stalled the project.
“If the past is any indication, the progress and speed of a development like this is different than what was predicted when approved,” he said.
Although Rossi is optimistic about starting construction next year, the drought may cause delays, said Rob Fitzroy, an environmental resource specialist with the county. Surveys for vernal pool fairy shrimp require wet and dry season surveys.
“They are in a difficult spot with the drought,” Fitzroy said. “They have been able to do a few of the surveys, but unless we get more rain, they won’t be able to complete them this year.”
Vernal pool fairy shrimp are a federally listed threatened species. The surveys are needed to determine if they are present in seven pools found on the ranch.
“That is something to watch,” said Susan Harvey, an activist with North County Watch, which opposed the development. “Some of the parcels or envelopes might have to be moved if the fairy shrimp are found.”
Other tasks that need to be completed before construction can begin include finalizing the tract map for the development and reviewing grading and building plans. Fitzroy said breaking ground in 2016 may be overly optimistic.
“Assuming all goes well, 2016 is a possibility,” he said. “However, I would be surprised if it went that quickly. There are a lot of little things that need to be done.”
Over the years, the project has garnered considerable opposition due to its traffic, air quality and other impacts. In 2008, North County Watch and the Endangered Habitats League sued the county over its approval of the project.
The court ordered the county to perform additional environmental studies including the air quality mitigation fees, which amount to more than $162,000, and the fairy shrimp surveys.
The development is expected to use 96 acre-feet of water per year. Rossi said he plans to get that water from the Nacimiento pipeline. The ranch has a 200 acre-foot allocation from the pipeline that runs through the ranch.
“The pipeline and turnouts traverse more than five miles of the ranch,” he said.
Rossi said he did not have an estimate of how much it will cost to hook into the pipeline.
The development is just one aspect of the ranch. It is also the home of a cattle operation consisting of 700 cow-calf pairs of grass-fed Angus beef, Rossi said. The ranch also has 1,000 acres of vineyards that grow 17 varieties of grapes with cabernet sauvignon being the largest variety. The ranch is home to two wineries owned by the Filipponi, Rossi and Wittstrom families: Ancient Peaks Winery and Santa Margarita Vineyards.
Most people know the ranch as the site of the annual Sunset Savor the Central Coast food and wine event that attracted 9,500 people last year. Other activities at the ranch include a zip line course, an equestrian center and a private narrow-gauge railroad.
“I think the ranch is becoming a contributing resource to the local economy,” Rossi said.