Editorial: Rollback of viewshed rule is a chance to get it right

San Luis Obispo County has a second chance to get the North Coast viewshed protection ordinance right — thanks in large part to the Sierra Club.

As reported in Friday’s Tribune, a Sierra Club lawsuit has resulted in an agreement to rollback the controversial ordinance adopted in 2007 and try again. That ordinance was watered-down to the point that it covered only about one-twelfth of the area originally proposed.

We don’t like to see public agencies hauled into court every time someone disagrees with a decision made by elected officials. But in this instance, other avenues — including numerous attempts to reach a compromise — had already failed. On top of that, the ordinance was egregiously rushed through in the waning days of 2007, before a new, more conservation-minded majority took office in January 2008.

Now, the county gets a do-over.

Along with the Sierra Club, a majority on the current Board of Supervisors deserves credit for this turn of events. On a 3-2 vote, with Supervisors Katcho Achadjian and Frank Mecham dissenting, the board agreed to the terms of a settlement that not only undoes what the former board got wrong, it also sets the stage for development of a new, more comprehensive ordinance.

To be clear, the settlement does not order the board to adopt a new viewshed protection plan.

It does, however, require that the county will initiate “within a reasonable time” the development of a countywide ordinance setting standards for hillside development.

The idea behind such ordinances isn’t to prohibit development on hillsides, but rather, to set standards for building location, height, landscaping, screens and other design elements, in order to make buildings less visually obtrusive.

That should be a top priority for all local governments. Scenic, uncluttered corridors are fast disappearing in California, and the fact that San Luis Obispo County still has significant stretches of open space is a huge draw that helps drive tourism and enhances the quality of life for residents.

The county does have viewshed ordinances on the books that protect certain areas of the county, including the Edna Valley, Salinas River, the ridges east of Nipomo and the Seven Sisters peaks.

That is a start, but we strongly support development of the type of comprehensive ordinance referred to in the settlement.

As envisioned in the document, the ordinance would include all the rural, unincorporated areas of the county, though it would not apply to more urbanized areas such as Cambria, Nipomo, Los Osos and other unincorporated towns.

This comprehensive approach makes sense and is, in fact, something the county already has been working toward.

Applying viewshed protection in piecemeal fashion is confusing and can lead to far too many loopholes, as we saw all too well in the North Coast case.

We recognize that adopting a countywide ordinance is not going to be easy; just look at the struggle over the North Coast ordinance.

But protecting our stretches of beautiful, rolling hillsides is key to the future of San Luis Obispo County.

We strongly urge the county to stay on track and, this time, adopt an ordinance that will deliver the protections it promises.