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Will the greenbelt buckle? 

A push for new hillside homes reveals the gaps in SLO's view protections

From a room in City Hall's mostly abandoned basement, Neil Havlik unfurled a City of San Luis Obispo topographic map so large it covered a conference table and spilled off the edges. He carefully traced the outline of the roughly 40,000-acre ring surrounding the city that has been designated the city's protection-worthy greenbelt. Then he pointed out the spotty patchwork of portions that have been solidly protected already.

click to enlarge IT IS NOT EASY KEEPING GREEN :  Proposed development for Santa Lucia Mountain above Johnson Avenue has prompted a closer look at San Luis Obispo citys commitment to preserving open space. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • IT IS NOT EASY KEEPING GREEN : Proposed development for Santa Lucia Mountain above Johnson Avenue has prompted a closer look at San Luis Obispo citys commitment to preserving open space.

# There was a moment of silence. The protected areas were, at most, a third of the circle.

"The open spaces," Havlik dryly noted, "are not as protected as people think they are."

Although its prospects are uncertain, a new push to annex and develop four residential parcels on the Santa Lucia mountain range above Johnson Avenue, higher than where city development has reached before, has drawn attention to just how malleable the protections of the city's much-vaunted greenbelt are especially since land values have made it newly economical to build out difficult lots.

Havlik, who looks like a younger Wilford Brimley in his white hair, mustache, and red-checkered shirt, is the

man who since 1994 has been charged with maintaining the ring of open space that surrounds the city and feeds into its character.

Standing in the middle of town and looking toward the skyline, one can see the tops of SLO's signature peaks and, apart from a few utility towers, an uncluttered landscape, free of L.A.-style cliffhangers or even the peak-dominating show homes that can be seen across the county's surrounding countryside.

Natural Resources Manager Havlik said he knows many who believe that the city's hillsides can't be developed. That isn't true, and it's not even part of the city's mission.

"The goal is preservation of open space," Havlik noted. "It does not I repeat, it does not mean 'no development.' It means keeping it rural in character."

San Luis Obispo city has for generations been interested in preserving its open spaces. Over the years, prominent families have pledged tracts of land toward the effort, and the city's populace has vilified attempts like Alex Madonna's plans to build a restaurant atop Cerro San Luis to mess with the view. But it wasn't official until 1994, when forging a greenbelt became part of the city's General Plan.

The city's partner in that effort has been the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo, a nonprofit whose charter prevents it from advocating on public policy issues, but whose efforts have been instrumental in building the belt.

The parcels above Johnson Avenue have focused attention on the effort.

Meeting into the early hours of April 26 to an overflow crowd dominated by opponents, the Planning Commission recommended against all of the proposals.

The plans would have the developments team up to build a water tank that would address water-pressure issues that have in part prevented building on the hillside above 460 feet.

Opponents are also concerned about a variety of other issues ranging from the steepness of the slope to wildfire hazards to views.

According to Bob Hill, conservation director for the Land Conservancy, San Luis Obispo's greenbelt has been preserved primarily through owners deeding their lands outright to the city or conservancy and through the use of conservation easements in which landowners hold on to their land but give up development rights on key portions of it in exchange for a fee. Large swaths of land have also been kept open through agricultural tax incentives handed down through the state's Williamson Act.

Indeed, Hill has a map similar to the one Havlik showed, but his shows a nearly complete circle, with just a handful of gaps, mostly around major gateways.

The difference between the two maps is that Hill's includes the Williamson Act lands. Havlik's doesn't. Though Hill said he considers the Williamson Act an invaluable tool, he noted that the act protects land for only 10 years at a time. Though the contracts can be difficult to get out of, it's not a permanent protection.

Portions of land outside of those forms of protection may still well be part of the green space because they're considered too expensive to build on, are geologically unstable, or are zoned for other uses. Yet engineering and economics can make some of those barriers go away, and, as Havlik noted, "Any Tuesday, the zoning can change."

And those reasons are partly why Havlik isn't necessarily opposed to all of the Johnson Avenue ideas the City Council will now make the final decision, but Havlik believes the proposals may offer the city a chance to build several more chinks in the chain that protects open space even if it means allowing some development at the lowest parts of the proposed lands.

He noted that some of the properties are marked as developable on a map that dates to 1893. That could give landowners legal leverage to challenge any ruling. Striking a deal with landowners would also give the city control over development instead of sending the landowners to seek approval through the county, which might not share the city's greenbelt goals.

Carol Rich lives in the neighborhood and helped organize the opposition. She said she's not necessarily opposed to the city seeking a deal with landowners, but she's opposed to the projects as planned.

"From every angle, people all over town will see these houses if they allow these projects they'll see retaining walls for miles," Rich said. "So it's not an issue that just affects area residents, it affects us all."

"We don't have the rampant hillside development in our city that you have in San Clemente or Santa Barbara, places that used to be beautiful," Rich said. "Why would we want to repeat those mistakes?"

Rachel Kovesdi, project and environmental planner for King Ventures, which wants to develop 10 new homes on the hillside while devoting 57 of 70 acres to open space, said she hopes the City Council will give developers a chance to do a thorough environmental study that would look at issues related to views, water, geology, biology, and traffic.

"Everybody at this point is still guessing about what can be seen from where and what will impact what," she said. "We'd like the chance to get those answers."

Managing Editor Patrick Howe lives within a half-mile of some of the proposed developments above Johnson Avenue.


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