Save SLO County!
Will San Luis Obispo (SLO) County remain predominantly agricultural, or will it sink into the same morass of rural sprawl that took out Orange County? It could go either way, but there’s still hope if we act now.
Though pundits declare that suburban sprawl has hit the wall in California, as younger people and empty-nesters finally embrace multi-family housing in transit-rich urban centers, exurban sprawl continues in many of the state’s rural areas, particularly where retirees have been moving, such as the Sierra Foothills and the Central Coast. San Luis Obispo (SLO) County, where my family operates an avocado ranch, is the recipient of more than its share of exurban development. With its year-round temperate climate, idyllic landscapes of rolling oak-studded hills, and friendly people, SLO County is what much of Southern California was like before being overrun by suburban development after World War II. The decisions it makes now will either stop the bulldozer’s march or hasten it. One thing that could safeguard the county’s stunning landscapes and agricultural heritage would be to adopt a set of ballot initiatives called “Save Open space Agricultural Resources,” or “SOAR.” That’s a step that needs to be taken to ensure that it doesn’t suffer the same fate as Orange County and Santa Clara Valley.
SLO County’s economy was traditionally based on agriculture—mostly cattle ranching and dairying– later augmented by row crops and horticulture. Viticulture and winemaking have also become important parts of the local economy over the last two decades. Other important segments of the economy include the military, oil refining, education and government services (Cal Poly SLO and the California Men’s Colony), and tourism. The county’s demographics skew toward an earlier California, being whiter (almost 75%) and a little older than the state as a whole. Until recently, SLO County voted Republican in most presidential and congressional elections, but Obama won there in 2008 and 2012. Like the rest of the state, there is a coast-versus-inland divide: San Luis Obispo and the beach towns are much more liberal than the inland areas.
The centers of new growth
Not surprisingly, most of the recent growth in San Luis Obispo County has taken place in the more politically conservative North County, as well as the coastal but also conservative Five Cities area in the South County. In North County, what used to be three discrete towns separated by miles of open space has become a continuous string of low density development that now links together Atascadero, Templeton, and Paso Robles. Similarly, the Five Cities area (as well as nearby Nipomo) has expanded beyond its previously compact domain into nearby strawberry fields and ridge tops. Since 1990, miles of ranches and farms have been transformed into red clay tile-roofed subdivisions, mega-churches, and big-box retail outlets that could easily be in Irvine or Thousand Oaks.
Many of the people driving this growth are big city “refugees” fleeing the traffic, congestion, and other urban ills of urban Southern California. Though many newcomers profess to admire the “small-town” feel of their new home, they seem to prefer shopping at big-box retail over the region’s traditional downtowns and living in large “Spani-terranean” style houses on subdivided ranchland rather than in the bungalows and beach cottages of the older communities. These urban refugees have been joined by thousands of retirees from all over the US, attracted by the county’s ideal climate and abundant recreation.
Brakes on development
Over the last three decades SLO County has enacted progressive land use and zoning regulations that seek to preserve the county’s rural character. Indeed, the county’s 1990 Growth Management Ordinance, amended in 2012, sets specific policies to encourage Smart Growth-type development in rural areas, while encouraging towns and cities to concentrate development in already developed areas. These policies have often been subverted by “good ol’ boy” politics, particularly in the inland parts of the county where property rights tend to trump the collective good.
Scarcity of water is a more significant brake on runaway growth. A semi-arid region, SLO County does not have access to the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, or any of the other major aqueducts. With water from existing reservoirs fully allocated, and groundwater being depleted in rural areas at an alarming rate, the county and its seven incorporated cities (Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, and San Luis Obispo) have to be judicious about what projects they approve. Communities like Cambria have years-long waiting lists for water hook-ups. Others, like the unincorporated coastal community of Los Osos, have had building moratoriums in effect since the 1980s.
The politics of sprawl
Though water shortages have helped restrain uncontrolled exurban growth in coastal San Luis Obispo County, the local political landscape is a wild card, particularly inland. As a traditionally rural county with a proud ranching legacy, private property rights are sacrosanct. In the inland communities of Paso Robles and Atascadero, which are entirely represented by pro-growth Republican lawmakers, very little stands in the way of a developer who wants to build houses. Between 1980 and 2010, the population of Paso Robles exploded from 9,200 to almost 30,000. During the housing boom of 2000-2006 the city saw on average the completion of 425 housing units each year—an astonishing and environmentally indefensible rate of growth for an area with perennial water shortages.
Atascadero has not been as eager to accommodate the developer’s every whim, but usually gives in eventually. Not that long ago it was a tiny, unincorporated crossroads at the intersection of U.S. Highway 101 and State Highway 41. Now it is a sprawling semi-rural exurb of almost 30,000 people. At 26 square miles, it is by far the largest community in the county in area. More low-density in character than Paso Robles, it sprawls as far north as Templeton, a small town between it and Paso Robles that has experienced its own building boom in recent years.
Atascadero is gradually creeping southward too, spreading tendril-like along Highway 101 toward San Luis Obispo. Eagle Ranch, a 3,500-acre working cattle ranch draped over beautiful oak-studded hills, is next up, earmarked for some 600 homes, a 100-room “resort hotel,” a golf course, and 15 acres of commercial space. Though the developer claims that 2,510 acres would be preserved as permanent open space, the site plan indicates that private yards and the golf course are included in this calculation. If it is built, which appears likely once the area is annexed by Atascadero, wildlife habitat would be hopelessly fragmented and another piece of Central Coast ranching heritage would bite the dust to make way for hyper-irrigated green lawns and trophy homes.
At the other end of the county, near Pismo Beach, a “Tuscan rural hillside village” inexplicably named “Spanish Springs” is taking shape in Price Canyon, a rural enclave of cattle pasture, oaks, and vineyards along a rural byway linking San Luis Obispo with the Five Cities area. It comprises 416 detached homes, 193 multi-family housing units, a 150-room luxury hotel, and the inevitable golf course. If it happens, Pismo Beach will annex Price Canyon, currently zoned for agricultural and other rural land uses, doubling the city’s land area. Bereft of adequate groundwater, Spanish Springs would tap into public water from the Lopez Lake reservoir in nearby Arroyo Grande. It would also rely on unspecified “future” water allocations from the California Water Project, which is nowhere close to being extended into SLO County. Pismo Beach is on track to approve the project, but the Sierra Club recently filed a lawsuit to stop it, citing the obvious water shortfalls, as well as the project’s likelihood to spur further sprawl.
These are not the only major residential and commercial projects proposed for SLO County. Others include the Dalidio Ranch development in San Luis Obispo, which would replace prime farmland on the outskirts of town with yet another downtown-killing regional shopping center; Mission Oaks Plaza in Atascadero, which would be anchored by the county’s first Super Wal-Mart; and several others. Though nearly all of these projects have some sort of organized opposition, the developers have money and time on their sides. Citizen activists can only do so much when the opposition has paid staff and seemingly endless financial resources to use to influence elected officials and sway public opinion with slick brochures and fancy websites.
Saving SLO County
Though an outsider, yet one with local roots, I think that SLO County is a rare slice of California that needs to be safeguarded from ill considered exurban sprawl. Its transformation into another Orange County is not inevitable. There are measures that can be taken to slow the development tsunami, in particular Save Open space Agricultural Resources (SOAR). Two counties on opposite ends of California, Napa and Ventura, have used these measures very effectively to fend off the threat of rural sprawl and preserve healthy agricultural economies. Both are relevant precedents for SLO County.
Napa Valley vintners and other landowners, faced with a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of suburban development, voted to establish the first Agricultural Preserve in the US in 1968. Stretching from Napa to Calistoga, 38,000 acres of prime vineyard and orchard lands are now protected within it. People take Napa Valley’s preservation for granted, but it took citizen action to stop sprawl in its tracks. It wouldn’t be a renowned center of winemaking and tourism today if it looked like the San Fernando Valley.
Thirty years after Napa County taught Americans about agricultural preservation, Ventura County enacted the nation’s first SOAR ordinance. Like its counterpart to the south Orange County, Ventura County, which borders Los Angeles County, has several large cities and a population of 823,000. It also has the Oxnard Plain, an extremely rich agricultural region that was invaded by red clay tile-roofed subdivisions during the 1970s and 1980s. Many people thought that Ventura County would suffer the same fate as Orange County, which lost its strawberry fields and orange groves to development in the same period. Instead, a coalition of liberal environmentalists and conservative ranchers crafted a SOAR ordinance, approved by voters in 1998. It shifted from local officials to local voters the power to change zoning from agricultural to residential and commercial uses, blunting the impact of developer money. Ventura County’s SOAR ordinance also established urban growth boundaries, giving farmers and ranchers the peace of mind they need to keep farming. Though certainly an example of “ballot box planning,” SOAR has been successful in holding the line against sprawl.
As a child I saw the remaining orchards of the Santa Clara Valley plowed under for high-tech office parks and monotonous housing tracts hemmed in by beige sound walls. What remains of California’s natural and rural beauty must be cared for and stewarded for future generations. What’s needed now is rational statewide land-use planning that can both identify and protect vulnerable regions like rural SLO County and designate the towns and cities that can sustain it for denser development. Growth and our rural, agricultural patrimony—we can actually have them both. The time is ripe.
 City of Paso Robles, http://www.prcity.com/government/departments/commdev/housing/demographics.asp
 Eagle Ranch, “What’s Proposed,” http://www.theeagleranch.com/project-details/
 Spanish Springs, “Project Description,” http://www.spanishspringspismo.com/description.html