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A developing story: Pismo Beach's development conflict shifts from Price Canyon to downtown 

It’s halftime in Pismo Beach.

In one locker room, developers are icing their injuries, wondering what went wrong, and trying to draw up a better game plan for the second half.

In the other locker room, opponents of mega-development are happy to be ahead for once, but scared to lose their lead, and searching for the magic plan to put the game out of reach.

The City Council and city staff are the frustrated referees who feel like they’ve been impartial—but both sides seem to think that those in power have called a terrible first half.

In the hotly contested game that is Pismo Beach development, everyone wants to do what they think is best, and there’s a lot of money at stake. As allegiances shift and strategies change, the next stage of the development game is set to play out in Pismo’s downtown core.

“I don’t want us to be distracted by what could be—we need to focus on developing what we have,” Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis told New Times. “Now is the right time for development downtown. I think this community could finally realize the vision we’ve had for the past 20 or 30 years.”

While the City Council and many developers seem to share Lewis’ enthusiasm, others in the Pismo community are more skeptical, while also experiencing whiplash from the city’s lightning-fast pivot from Price Canyon—proposed site of several hotels, housing, a golf course, and more—to downtown.

“It’s nice to see the abandonment of the ‘manifest destiny’ attitude; the city has realized that we have our backs to the ocean and we need to polish up the jewels that we have,” said Sheila Blake, one of the leaders of local activist group Save Price Canyon. “At the same time, they’ve been trying to make the downtown push for decades, and they’ve accomplished very little.”

Save Price Canyon’s Spanish Springs referendum a few months back was a major reason why the council rescinded the environmental impact report and broader general plan amendments, stalling that specific proposed development—which carried plans for housing, two hotels, and a golf course—for at least 12 months.

While the activist group is still focused on protecting the Pismo Beach hills from the specter of stalled or dead mega-developments like Spanish Springs, Pismo Ranch, and Los Robles Del Mar, City Council members and Lewis said that while they understand the concern, the city’s focus has completely shifted.

“When it comes to Price Canyon, we’re at zero, and we’re going to be at zero for quite a while,” Lewis said.

In an afternoon meeting with New Times, Lewis and Community Development Director Jon Biggs enthusiastically detailed the wide range of development in the city that is underway, concretely planned, or hoped for but hypothetical.

Affordable housing units (both condos and homes), a 110-room national hotel, and a national restaurant chain will be taking root at the former Orchard Supply Hardware store off Oak Park Boulevard. Sixteen new homes and 16 town houses are being built at the corner of Wadsworth and Price. Shell Beach Road will be adding separate bike and pedestrian paths while PG&E is undergrounding its utilities. Many businesses are applying for remodels, upgrades, and additional seating.

As Biggs and Lewis excitedly gestured at a blown-up map of Pismo’s downtown core, Lewis ran through his grand vision: a seaside amphitheater, new lighting and landscaping, upscale restaurants and bars galore, a plaza to replace the pier parking lot, different themed districts—high-tech, restaurants, shopping—and even a Ferris wheel.

“I know it can seem a little over the top, but we’re dreaming and thinking big,” Lewis said. “We’re talking with literally hundreds of people, soliciting advice and input from everyone, and all of this is coming together.”

Lewis said city staffers hope to progress the downtown development plans so they can bring some items to the council in the spring of next year.

Biggs said increased transient occupancy tax revenues, substantial interest from the private sector, and a unified council dedicated to improving downtown make this a golden opportunity for the city—previously a victim to political fractionalization and economic downturns.

At a Nov. 13 community workshop set up to brainstorm ideas for downtown development, roughly 40 people showed up. Lewis said he had hoped for 75 to 100.

Blake attended the workshop and said she—and many of her Save Price Canyon compatriots—support the idea of development in downtown Pismo, but she still wasn’t sure what the outcome would be.

“I just will wait to see what they do with this,” she said. “I’m kind of cynical about these workshops, because, at times, it can seem like a ‘feel-good exercise’ where everyone goes home and nothing changes.”

For their part, Save Price Canyon organizers have also started holding workshops of their own. The group played host to its first fundraiser on Nov. 2, which ended up netting more than $8,000.

Group representatives said the funds will largely go toward covering legal fees for the group’s planned ballot initiative. The group is looking for a more permanent strategy than City Council disinterest to preempt what they deem “rampant overdevelopment” in Price Canyon.

The initiative is in the final stages of its drafting, and, for now, will likely land on Pismo’s November 2014 ballot.

Though the overall development focus has undeniably shifted to downtown, Save Price Canyon and City Council members are still nursing old wounds and occasionally igniting lingering conflicts left over from the years of scuffles over planned mega-developments in the Pismo hills.

On the day before Save Price Canyon’s fundraiser, SLO County code enforcer Harley Voss was called in on an anonymous tip to evaluate the gathering’s legality. Voss told New Times he wasn’t at liberty to name the tipster, but he determined the event was perfectly legal.

“I am just so paranoid now,” said Save Price Canyon member Marcia Guthrie. “It’s been really been disillusioning with the city government.”

Speaking at the Save Price Canyon fundraiser, Guthrie and fellow activist Richard Foster said they feel tolerated by the City Council and city staff, but not listened to or respected. They also said they feel misrepresented by labels like “NIMBY” and “anti-development,” both of which they disavow.

“When the facts aren’t on your side, you start calling people names,” Foster said. “We aren’t opposed to development, we are opposed to massive development.”

In response, City Council members said they are fully aware of Save Price Canyon, and respect their point of view just as much as anyone else’s opinion.

“I think we’re doing our due diligence and doing it right,” said councilman Ed Waage. “Listening to our residents and getting feedback are key. We need to have a robust development debate.”

“Change is difficult, and it can seem scary when change is proposed,” said Mayor Shelly Higginbotham. “It’s sometimes hard to explain the benefits of development when we like our neighborhoods the way they are, but cities have to grow.”

Councilman Kris Vardas, on the other hand, said that activist accusations of “cavalier” and “renegade” behavior on the council with respect to development were unfounded and unfair.

“There are a good number of people that don’t want to see the city change or grow, and one way to do that is to make false statements or accusations like these,” Vardas said. “It’s entirely unfair.”

Spanish Springs representative David Watson said he feels the development has now addressed all of the issues brought up by the City Council, and said he hopes the council will return to Spanish Springs soon.

Representatives for Pismo Ranch did not return calls for comment as of press time. 


Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at

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