BY KATHRYN GILLICK
There aren’t many places left in the county where a sheep can be
seen trotting through the middle of downtown. Not that it’s an everyday
experience in Shandon, but it still happens.
But it’s also a town with no bus service, no gas station, no restaurants, and where it’s not uncommon to have more than one family crammed into a small house.
Recently, developers, county planners, and locals have started examining the town’s future, and how its need for services is connected to the need for affordable housing in Shandon and throughout the county.
The county plans on building 3,554 new housing units between now and 2009, according to the county’s Housing Element of its General Plan.
Those units are broken down into categories of “very low income,” “low income,” “moderate,” and “above moderate,” depending on how their cost measures against the county’s median income.
The median income is estimated to be $62,919 in 2004, according to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.
Just where the county will put all the homes it wants to build is still not clear, but with new developments recently completed in San Miguel and Shandon, it looks like some of the smaller communities, especially those in the county’s outlying areas, will not be immune from growth.
“One thing that we’ve noticed here at the planning department,” said Dana Lilley, the county’s supervising planner, “is that there are thousands upon thousands of divided lots all through the open parts of the county, and more and more people are building their homes on those.
“We would rather that they were building them in towns and cities and villages instead—like San Miguel, like Shandon—as an alternative to sprawling over the natural habitat and scenic viewshed.”
In explaining why developers are looking at more rural areas of the county, Steve Sylvester, president of North Coast Engineering in Paso Robles, who is involved in developments proposed for Shandon, said: “It’s actually become to Paso Robles what Paso used to be to San Luis Obispo.
“I don’t mean to imply that Shandon can handle all of the housing units that are projected in the county’s Housing Element,” he said, “but areas like Shandon and San Miguel are poised to handle a portion of that, and in proportion to their size, they can handle more than other areas.”
In San Miguel, many recently built or planned developments are on land already subdivided. In Shandon, however, new, large-scale development means taking a look at the area’s General Plan.
Many Shandon residents are willing to accept some growth in the town, but still, locals aren’t ready to let developers run roughshod over the town.
“Some development would be nice,” said longtime resident Katie Phillips. “I just don’t want the community to be destroyed just because someone wants to make a dollar.”
Slow growth was a preference expressed by every Shandon resident interviewed by New Times.
Eva Tingley, who has lived in Shandon for 22 years, said, “We know we’re going to grow, but we want to do it the right way. We don’t want to do it all at once.”
In just the past few months, growth in Shandon has been the focus of a Cal Poly study released March 10; two large housing developments have been proposed; one gas station is slated to go in; a second has been approved as part of a retail center; another housing development has been approved; more housing is nearing completion; and city and community planners are talking about how to develop Shandon, and possibly amend the area’s General Plan.
The Cal Poly study, which was done by D. Gregg Doyle, a professor of city and regional planning at the school, and 11 students, gathered information during several community meetings over the past six months. The meetings were held in both English and Spanish to include the nearly 50 percent of Shandon residents who are Spanish-speakers.
Some of the needs addressed in the study are bus service into Paso Robles, health facilities, retail and job growth, housing, traffic, and community programs.
It wasn’t the first time Shandon was the center of a Cal Poly study. In 2000, architecture students at the school studied farmworker housing in the area. After that study, and partly because of it, an informal group of nonprofit organizations and community members started discussing how to improve services in Shandon.
“We started out looking at housing, and then we said, ‘Maybe we need to branch out,’” said George Moylan, executive director of the Housing Authority of the city of San Luis Obispo. “We need to talk about community development; we need to talk about community services; we need to talk about water, sewer, and paved roads. We’re not trying to build a metropolis out there, but we’re trying to build and talk about a cohesive, self-supporting community.”
The Housing Authority is an arm of the city of San Luis Obispo, but it receives some federal funds and it manages Section 8 housing for the county.
Currently, Shandon—which has a population of roughly 1,000—has one convenience store, a post office, a hardware co-op, a church, and an outpost of the California Department of Forestry. A sign advertising a taqueria and carneceria opening soon near the corner of Centre and 3rd hangs over an empty retail building, but across the street former businesses look like something out of a ghost town, with chipping paint and boarded-up windows.
The vacant buildings are a reminder of the retail economy Shandon had up until Highway 46 was diverted around the town in 1956.
One gas station is set to go in soon near the intersection of Highway 41 and Highway 46. Another, which will be part of a larger retail center, has been approved to go in on Centre Street near Toby Way.
The developer of the retail center is Frank Arciero of Arciero Winery.
Behind the 17-acre retail center, Arciero will build 15 homes on one-acre lots.
Repeated calls to Arciero were not returned.
Two years ago, Arciero completed a 40-home subdivision on Centre near the proposed retail center.
On the other side of Centre Street from Arciero’s housing tract, another developer is building a small tract of about 10 homes.
Arciero is now proposing a new, larger subdivision in the town. The project would put 800 to 1,000 homes on 311 acres of a 1,280-acre parcel.
The area Arciero wants to develop is under contract with the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, or the Williamson Act.
Under the Williamson Act, landowners get lower property taxes if they preserve their land as agriculture or open space. Local governments then get a set reimbursement rate from the state for revenue lost from lower taxes.
The only way to remove a property from the Williamson Act is by choosing not to renew—which makes the contract expire after 10 years—or to have the county cancel it.
Arciero isn’t the only developer who wants the Board of Supervisors to take land out of a Williamson contract. Steve Blumer of Blumer Construction and Development in Bakersfield is also proposing to build a housing tract in Shandon.
“It can be a win-win situation for Shandon,” said Blumer. “There’s a great need for entry-level or affordable housing” in the town.
Blumer was the largest single contributor to Supervisor Harry Ovitt’s most recent campaign. He gave Ovitt, whose district includes Shandon and Paso Robles, $2,250.
When asked about the contributions, he said, “That’s politics. That’s the way the world works … it’s totally acceptable and standard. That’s how politicians are able to pay for their advertising and what have you.”
Blumer said that he is planning to move to San Luis Obispo County. The proposed development would be his first venture in the county.
Blumer proposes to build approximately 700 units—he’s not sure how many will be low income—on about 200 acres behind the park in Shandon.
Blumer and Arciero went before the Board on March 2, asking for “pre-approval” to move forward. Instead of saying yes or no to the proposals, however, the Board asked its staff to study the effects of taking the land out of the Williamson Act contracts.
Lilley, with the county’s planning department, said presentation of the study is tentatively scheduled for the April 27 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
“At this point we don’t know what we’re going to recommend to the board,” said Lilley, who is the liaison between County Planning and the Shandon Advisory Committee.
During the March 2 meeting, 15 people from the community of Shandon spoke to the Board about the proposed developments. One person, George Becker, said that he supports building affordable housing, but that he doesn’t think these developments are the best solution.
Interviewed later, Becker, who is the former chairman of the Shandon Advisory Committee, said, “The downtown area has a lot of people crammed in the houses … I have no opposition [to building more homes] but I think it has to be managed slow because we have no infrastructure for it.”
Others at the March 2 board meeting spoke on their concerns about taking the land out of the Williamson Act.
There are 822,037 acres in Williamson Act contracts throughout the county, according to Warren Hoag, principal planner with the county Planning Department. That is roughly 70 percent of all agricultural land, about 55 percent of private land, or approximately 40 percent of all land in the county, he said.
There are state criteria that landowners must meet if they want Williamson Act contracts cancelled, and only four or five have ever been approved, Hoag said.
“Each one of those has been a unique situation,” he said.
One was a parcel that Hoag said was so small it hardly made sense to have it as a agriculture preserve, two others—in Cayucos and Morro Bay—were ranches that were divided by Highway 1, with small portions of land on the west that were eventually taken out of contract; and the fourth was in Edna Valley, where the landowners took a smaller portion of Williamson Act land out of contract in exchange for putting in a larger parcel.
The hardest criteria for landowners to meet, Hoag said, is “that there’s no other land in the area that’s not under contract that can’t be put to that same use they want to put that land to once they’re out from under contract.”
Canceling a contract is so difficult that Hoag said most landowners looking to get out from the Williamson Act choose to file a notice of non-renewal. People can’t change the use of their land for 10 years after filing a non-renewal, but they do not have to prove anything to the county. He said the county gets between five and 10 non-renewal filings each year.
If a landowner goes through with a request for cancellation, the county looks at the property and the owner presents reasons to cancel. During the process, the case is sent to the state Department of Conservation, which oversees the Williamson Act. The department makes a recommendation to the board, but the board doesn’t have to follow it.
If the county decides to cancel the contract, and the Department of Conservation disagrees with the decision, it can sue.
“The other risk [to canceling Williamson Act contracts] is … precedent,” Lilley said. “By easily canceling the Williamson Act contract are we sending a message for all the other property owners out there who have Williamson Act contracts with us that we’re easy? That if they come to us, because of what we did in Shandon, that they’ll have a good case to cancel their contracts, too? Then, in the long run, will that undermine agriculture all over the county?”
Agriculture was worth about $5.2 million in 2003, according to the County Agriculture Department. Agriculture production made up 3.2 percent of all jobs in the county and 5.1 percent of the gross product last year, according to Dan Hamilton, director of economics at the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project.
If building more housing is what the community of Shandon decides to do, it doesn’t have to take land out of Williamson Act contracts to do it. According to Professor Doyle, planners could significantly expand the town without expanding the urban boundary.
Shandon is currently more than 60 percent built out within the urban boundary, according to Lilley.