Letters to the Editor

Development proposed for SLO’s Irish Hills ignores the city’s general plan policies

The historic Froom Ranch farmhouse buildings next to Home Depot are to be preserved or relocated as part of the proposal to build a retirement community on the property.
The historic Froom Ranch farmhouse buildings next to Home Depot are to be preserved or relocated as part of the proposal to build a retirement community on the property. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

On April 5, the San Luis Obispo City Council considered an annexation request from a private developer who wants to build a 20-acre continuing care retirement center on the John Madonna Ranch at Los Osos Valley Road and Calle Joaquin. The proposal also includes significant residential and commercial development unrelated to the retirement center, and the total project would take up about 55 acres.

With a slick presentation, project sponsors offered a vision of a wonderful retreat for those who can afford it, while discounting impacts on traffic, infrastructure and the environment. After the presentation and public testimony, the council quickly gave the project sponsors the green light to prepare the necessary documents and applications for the project.

I believe the council should have spoken up in defense of the current general plan, which the project sponsors propose to change significantly.

The most important general plan policy involves prohibition of building above the 150 -foot elevation, a policy that protects the hillsides of the Irish Hills. (The city now owns most of those hillsides as open space.) The proposal ignores that restriction and extends well above 150 feet in two areas of the property. Development there would be highly visible and very different from other residential development in the area. The nearby Mountainbrook Church was developed in the county, which has no elevation limit for development.

The current project’s sponsors used the church’s existence as justification for the city to abandon its own policies in this regard. Sadly, council members made little effort to defend this general plan policy.

The project will require a steep road, paralleling the open space property line just a few feet away, replacing the beauty and serenity of that site with the noise of straining engines going up or squealing brakes going down. Again, council members did not speak up for protection of a beautiful open space area the city already owns.

The project proposes to go as high as 238 feet, about 88 feet higher than the general plan allows. This seems likely to create a need for a new reservoir even higher on the hillside to provide adequate water flow to those units. Thus it is possible that major construction and grading in the wooded hills above nearby neighborhoods will occur as part of this project.

The other major dismissal of the general plan involved “restoration” of Froom Creek. This restoration, however, seems to have more to do with getting the creek out of the way than restoring it. It would destroy a rich and valuable marsh habitat alongside Calle Joaquin by grading, levee construction and groundwater flow interruption.

Here, council members again turned their backs on general plan policies and the city’s creek setback ordinance. This sets a dangerous precedent, placing council on the side of developers who wish to ignore the general plan as the project seeks necessary permits from regulatory agencies. What will be the city’s position when those permits are sought?

Annexations are a special class of request. The decision of the City Council on an annexation cannot be appealed. Therefore, the council has great power in setting the direction of any proposed annexation.

The April 5 request was an opportunity for council members to give such direction, or even say they were not interested in an annexation. It would have been easy to do this early in the process.

The council’s lack of input thus amounted to a tacit approval of the project. Does anyone really believe that, after such silence, the council will find it easier when the project is back after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies and an environmental impact report?

On April 5, council members could and should have spoken up in defense of the general plan. They could have said they will not consider a project so contrary to the general plan. They could have said go back to the drawing board. They could have spoken out for better buffering of the city’s open space. They could have said stay below 150 feet. They could have said don’t realign Froom Creek and destroy wetlands — but they said none of these things.

Two council members only expressed “hope” that the project could stay below the 150 feet in elevation. Thus, the city is countenancing policies and actions opposed by its own general plan and setting the city in opposition to superior agencies whose requirements the city is supposed to uphold.

There is still time for council members to speak up in defense of the general plan — especially for its natural resource protection policies — as this project takes shape.

Council members, I urge you to do so.

Neil Havlik served as natural resources manager for San Luis Obispo for 17 years, until his retirement in 2012.