Give Villaggio senior housing project a chance

Froom Creek, looking south looking south toward Courtyard Marriott in San Luis Obispo.
Froom Creek, looking south looking south toward Courtyard Marriott in San Luis Obispo. Courtesy photo

I am a longtime resident, rancher and businessman. I am not accustomed to being in the public eye. But I feel compelled to comment on Neil Havlik’s recent Viewpoint (“Villaggio senior housing: A good project in the wrong place?” March 6).

I own the Froom Ranch property next to Home Depot, where I am proposing Villaggio be built.

I write with respect for Neil Havlik and his 17 years as SLO’s manager of natural resources. However, he overlooked a number of significant facts in his opinion piece.

I find it curious that Mr. Havlik refers to “project sponsor” instead of mentioning me by name. I have known Neil for years and worked with him on dedication of land for Irish Hills Open Space (including naming a path “Neil Havlik Way”).

But more importantly, Mr. Havlik makes several statements that warrant further information. I’ll review them point by point.

150-foot Urban Reserve Line

Mr. Havlik says the project wants an exception to the city’s urban reserve line of 150-foot elevation in the Irish Hills area, and that 150 “is not some number pulled out of a hat.” However, former SLO Mayor Dave Romero has testified twice to the Planning Commission that the line was misunderstood when the city established it in 1994. The city thought the brush line in the Irish Hills was at 150 feet; in fact, it is about 250 feet.

Because of topography, the 150 foot line does not work as a clear delineator for hillside development. KSBY TV is well above the 150-foot mark at the edge of the city limits. Nearby Mountainbrook Church, discreetly tucked into the hillside, would have been excluded by city regulations for exceeding 150 feet, but it was built in the county.

We are not requesting special treatment. We are only asking that the city consider adjusting regulations that might be preventing open-space amenities and much-needed senior housing. We simply hope for the opportunity to discuss the issue, and we felt the city concurred when it gave us approval to continue to explore the 150-foot line as part of the development application.

Froom Creek’s Vitality

I know a bit about Froom Creek’s history. Years ago the creek was moved to make the land easier to farm; since then it has been little more than a dry ditch. We are proposing to restore Froom Creek more closely to its historic path, reduce flooding and provide better habitat for plants and wildlife.

To suggest this plan turns Froom Creek into a flood-control channel ignores what has been done successfully elsewhere, including the realignment of Orcutt Creek to facilitate construction of the Damon Garcia Sports Fields. Orcutt Creek is now a healthy creek corridor with natural vegetation that provides benefits to humans and wildlife alike. This is exactly what Villaggio seeks to do for Froom Creek — and we would create attractive open space and public walking paths along with it.

Wetlands and Storm Basins

Mr. Havlik asserts that any change in Froom Creek’s path would damage or destroy wetlands and negatively affect nearby storm basins. In fact, existing wetlands will be preserved and enhanced. Realigning Froom Creek closer to its original path will move the hydrology closer to the wetland feature and should provide more wetland support, not less.

The storm drainage basin is exactly that — a man-made drainage feature holding water runoff from Home Depot and Costco parking lots. It was never meant to be a habitat feature; by county standards it must drain within seven days of rain.

The Benefits of Change

Having lived my entire life in San Luis Obispo, I am aware of many proposals that originally aroused passionate objections, yet today enjoy enormous public support.

For instance:

▪ Mission Plaza was fiercely opposed by the business community at the time of its creation. It’s now a cherished landmark.

▪ The Damon Garcia Sports Complex was at the center of a protracted community fight for years. Now the fields are alive with children and families virtually year round.

▪ Bishop Peak’s treasured open space and the extremely popular Felsman Loop trail were made possible because the city departed from existing policy. The land was private property until the city granted three residential lots to Felton Ferrini. In return, he granted the open space. A win-win for all involved.

In the next two years, the Villaggio project will be properly subjected to a thorough review process. As a matter of fairness, let’s allow the process to proceed before we leap to any conclusions. I hope we can be open to finding win-win solutions.

John Madonna is a lifelong resident of San Luis Obispo and the owner of John Madonna Construction.