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Controversial Palomar housing project in SLO moves forward

Residents are concerned about a proposed housing development at 71 Palomar Ave., the impact it would have on the neighborhood and on the trees at the property.
Residents are concerned about a proposed housing development at 71 Palomar Ave., the impact it would have on the neighborhood and on the trees at the property. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A controversial proposed housing project at 71 Palomar Ave. in San Luis Obispo has moved forward in the planning process with approval from the Cultural Heritage Committee, which ruled Tuesday that moving a home built in 1895 on the site wouldn’t ruin its historic character.

In a 4-2 vote, the committee also decided that cutting down 49 trees while retaining four trees on the property wouldn’t alter the 1.32-acre property’s historic integrity.

In a meeting that drew about 50 people and lasted more than four hours, about 25 people from the public spoke on the revised plan, which now calls for building five studios, 16 two-bedroom and 12 three-bedroom apartments — and to reuse the Sandford House as a leasing office with amenities for residents, such as fitness or study rooms.

Those who objected to the project said it would add students and congestion to the neighborhood, while removing trees that provide natural landscaping to the community and altering a cultural resource.

Those who supported the project said it will add needed housing to the community and noted that the Sandford House has a damaged foundation, which needs repair, so lifting it off of its base and moving it would be appropriate. The home could fall into a state of decay if it’s not restored, they said.

The developer, Loren Riehl, has proposed planting 38 new trees on the property.

While the committee approved the proposed project in light of its historic value, it recommended that the Architectural Review Commission review the project’s size and scale and expressed concern that so many trees would be cut down. The committee recommended that the ARC give careful attention to the city arborist’s report in a meeting scheduled for July 18.

The ARC will consider the project based on development standards and neighborhood compatibility, while also hearing from city arborist Ron Combs.

I voted no because this project takes a historic resource, an endangered species in this community, and surrounds it with a giant project.

Shannon Larrabee, San Luis Obispo Cultural Heritage Committee member

Cultural Heritage Committee members Shannon Larrabee and Leah Walthert voted against the project. Chairperson Jaime Hill was absent.

“I voted no because this project takes a historic resource, an endangered species in this community, and surrounds it with a giant project,” Larrabee said. “They could have done a better job of respecting the treatment of this property.”

The proposal envisions moving and rehabilitating the historic Sandford House, believed to have been built in 1895. The move would reposition the home 33 feet to the east and 16 feet south of its current location.

What I see here is that some people don’t want anything to change, but change happens.

James Papp, San Luis Obispo Cultural Heritage Committee member

Committee member James Papp said nearly all of the trees currently on the property don’t appear in an early-1900s photo of San Luis Obispo and he fears the property could be demolished by neglect if a developer doesn’t fit the bill for maintaining the Sandford residence.

“What I see here is that some people don’t want anything to change, but change happens,” Papp said, in voting to support the plan. “You have to incorporate what actually allows our community to grow.”

Roberto Monge, a neighborhood resident, added that opening Luneta Drive, now blocked to through traffic, a byproduct of the project that has long been in city planning documents, would cramp the streets with cars where families routinely walk and gather for potlucks.

“Every step of the way, we’re telling the city ‘don’t open Luneta and don’t do this project,’ ” Monge said.

If approved by the ARC, the project can be appealed to the City Council.

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