Tone down elaborate Discovery Gardens plan in Paso Robles

Garden of the Mind includes outdoor optical illusions, puzzles and fountain
Garden of the Mind includes outdoor optical illusions, puzzles and fountain Rendering courtesy of Thinkwell Group Inc.

As much as we love gardens, we're having a hard time wrapping our brains around the decision to allow a Disneyesque garden/tourist attraction — complete with greenery, mazes, a tunnel, an artificial lake and other water features — at a resort planned for the eastern entrance to Paso Robles.

The Entrada de Paso Robles resort was approved several years ago with 200 hotel rooms, 80 casitas, a conference center and, originally, a 27-hole golf course. Since the original approval, the property off Highway 46 East changed hands — it's now owned by Ken Hunter III — and so did the vision for the property. Hunter wants a series of gardens there, rather than a golf course. Now that he's received the blessing of the city Planning Commission, construction of Discovery Gardens — to be built in the project's first phase — could begin as early as next year.

On the plus side, Discovery Gardens will require significantly less water than the golf course. According to Paso Robles City Manager Jim App, the gardens will use just 90 acre feet per year, compared to the 500 acre feet that the golf course would have required. When recycled water becomes available, the gardens will be required to tap into that.

Another consideration: There already are a fair number of golf courses in our county - including the Hunter Ranch Golf Course located across the highway from the future resort.

We agree that, especially from the standpoint of water savings, the gardens are a better use of the property than a golf course. But why does this have to be an either/or? Is there no other possible use for the land? Or for that matter, why such a large garden? Why not start with something small — ideally a garden showcasing drought tolerant plants?

We are, after all, in the middle of a drought, and in this water miserly environment, symbolism counts for a lot. Just look at the fuss that was kicked up when the Hearst Castle swimming pool was refilled for a Lady Gaga video. What message will it send, then, when we see manicured green hedges, flowering trees and gurgling fountains rising in the otherwise dry Paso landscape, even if the gardens do use far less water than a golf course?

With some major tweaking, though, this could be transformed into an attraction more compatible with the surrounding area and the hot, dry Paso climate. This is an opportunity to entertain and educate, by showcasing the beauty and variety of native landscaping — including plants, rocks and outdoor sculptures — that use little or no water.

We strongly urge the planners of Discovery Gardens to tone down the fairy-tale aspects of the project and give us something that reflects the reality we face in water-starved California.