Submitted to SLO Tribune

At the San Luis Obispo city Planning Commission meeting of Jan. 24 regarding the proposed continuing care facility known as Villaggio at the Froom Ranch, several commissioners wondered aloud if the project was not “a good project in the wrong place.” This came after a presentation that showed the project seeks removal of several important environmental constraints that constitute a grant of special privilege to the project sponsors. What are these constraints? What do the project sponsors seek? And how are these removals “special privileges”?

First, the sponsors seek to remove the city’s long-standing urban reserve line of 150 feet elevation in the Irish Hills area. This elevation is not some number pulled out of a hat; it is a topographical, geological, and ecological boundary, essentially marking the base of the Irish Hills. Protection of the area above that elevation has been city policy for at least 25 years. The result of this policy is Irish Hills Natural Reserve, the city’s largest open space (over 1,000 acres) with beautiful habitat and miles of trails enjoyed by our citizens every day. Now the developers of this last property in the area seek to eliminate that policy and develop well above 150 feet into in an environment with numerous engineering and biological challenges.

Second, the sponsors want to move Froom Creek. They call it “restoration” but it is anything but. The creek is in the way of where the sponsors would like to develop. So they propose to move the creek hundreds of feet away, swinging it around the project and hooking back up to the point where the creek leaves the property. This will require construction of what will actually be a flood control channel with large levees on one or both sides, designed to contain the 100-year storm event; hardly a restoration. It will likely also interrupt the groundwater regime in that area, cutting off the protected wetlands along Calle Joaquin from their water supply. The city has a creek setback ordinance, which the sponsors say they will respect, after they have moved the creek out of the way. The city’s creek setback ordinance allows for exceptions, but not if it constitutes a grant of special privilege. This request is the mother of all special privileges, and turns the creek setback ordinance upside down.

Third, the sponsors want to modify an existing conservation easement that protects the Calle Joaquin wetlands and surrounding area. Why? Because it is also in the way. The sponsors want to develop part of the easement area, so what to do? Move it, of course! Never mind that conservation easements are intended to be permanent, and while they can be modified or even eliminated, state law generally requires all parties to the easement to go to court and convince the court that the change is (a) justified, (b) at least neutral in its effect, and (c) done for a purpose consistent with the easement in the first place. Making such findings in this situation will be tough.

Fourth, the sponsors want to move the existing storm basins on the Froom Ranch to a downstream location where a (new, single) basin will have a different function. In their current condition, the basins hold water for an extended period of time in the rainy season and have become attractive wetland and open water areas for waterfowl. This has been the case for years and the basins are well established. Now the sponsors want to fill them in (for development, of course) and create a single basin on a neighboring property downstream. In that location the basin will perform a different function, that of a temporary holding basin for storm water flows in Froom Creek. Since the basin would be tied into the creek, it must be designed to drain quickly (usually within 48 hours), so it can again capture storm flows if another storm comes along soon afterward. Therefore, by its very design, the basin will not hold water for any length of time and may not support wetland vegetation or waterfowl habitat at all.

The Villaggio project may provide a service the community currently lacks. However, it is fair to question the size, location, layout, existence of unrelated features (apartment complex and commercial development) that take up space and are a pretense to justify abandonment of existing environmental safeguards. The 150 foot limit? Eliminate it. Froom Creek? Move it. The conservation easement? Move it. Storm basins? Replace them. The Planning Commission got it right: The Villaggio project is what needs to be moved, not the environment in which the sponsors want to place it.

Neil Havlik