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Rangeland everlasting: Eagle Ranch donates 3,200 acres to conservation easement, preserving it in perpetuity 

More than 5 square miles of land south of Atascadero are now untouchable to developers. It can’t be subdivided. Water can’t be diverted. Oak trees can’t be cut down. It will always be what it is now, at least in theory.

“In my view, it’s quintessential California,” said Jeff Smith, a principal of Eagle Ranch LLC, the landowner. “There are a lot of values to the land that we’d like to preserve.”

Eagle Ranch is split into two segments: the South Ranch and the North Ranch. Wildlife, clean water, grass-covered hills, oak forests, and cattle call the 3,225 acres known as the South Ranch home. And for the last 10 years, that land has been the subject of a back-and-forth discussion between Eagle Ranch and the Land Conservancy of SLO County—a conversation that ended in March, when the Smith family made the largest land donation to a conservation easement in county history.

click to enlarge CATTLE COUNTRY :  The hills of southern Eagle Ranch will roll unencumbered forever because of a recent conservation easement agreement with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LAND CONSERVANCY OF SLO COUNTY
  • CATTLE COUNTRY : The hills of southern Eagle Ranch will roll unencumbered forever because of a recent conservation easement agreement with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County.

The Smiths still own the land, and the easement enables existing agricultural operations to continue. But they no longer retain the right to develop that land, and neither will anybody who buys the parcel in the future. The Smiths do plan on developing the North Ranch adjacent to it, though. That’s 3,450 acres of Eagle Ranch land Atascadero identified as a potential expansion area for the city in its 2002 general plan update. The land still needs to be annexed to the city. 

What’s proposed for the North Ranch includes almost 500 single-family homes on half-acre to 5-plus-acre lots, a 100-room resort hotel, 15,000 square feet of retail space, a 10-acre public park, 16 miles of trails, and 2,510 acres of open space. Those plans now rest with the city of Atascadero, which should soon be taking comments on the draft environmental impact report for the project. A meeting was originally set for January, but canceled, and Atascadero Community Development Director Phillip Dunsmore said the city isn’t sure when the report will be released to the public.

Preserving that “quintessential California” feel is a component of developing the northern part of the property, which is why Eagle Ranch is proposing to keep 70 percent of that acreage as open space. Smith said the parcels will be clustered in such a way that each lot will either be able to touch or view “untouched” land. 

The ranch has been in the family’s hands since 1965, when Smith’s grandparents purchased the land. 

“My grandparents really used the ranch as sort of a retreat. … And if you go back in history, all the owners really kind of used it as a retreat,” Smith said. “It really struck us that it would make sense for us to donate the southern end, … and we’re able to continue to run the agricultural operation, essentially as we did.”

According to Land Conservancy Executive Director Kaila Dettman, donations of this sort are pretty rare. Most of the nonprofit’s conservation easements have been purchased. The largest easement ever purchased by the conservancy was 5,000 acres in North County, and the recent donation brings the conservancy’s total easements to more than 18,000 acres of land in SLO County. 

And each of those easements is unique: For instance, while Eagle Ranch will continue to run cattle, another easement may not retain that right. Once a landowner approaches the conservancy with the idea, a price is negotiated based on the value of the rights—mineral, development, grazing, etc.—that will eventually be given up and the conservancy raises the money through donors. 

“The property may be worth $5,000 an acre, but we’re only paying for some of the rights,” Dettman explained, saying that price could range from $1,500 to $3,000 an acre. 

The Smiths donated the rights to develop 36 underlying parcels: potentially millions of dollars in property rights. The easement also protects Eagle Lake, a man-made lake developed in 1972 for agricultural use on the ranch, and numerous tributaries to the Salinas River. 

“And those all could have had, by constitutional right, homes on them. That ranch could have been subdivided, a very different place in a few years,” Dettman said. “It was visionary gift.”

Contact Editor Camillia Lanham at [email protected].



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