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A sweet deal for developers? 

Proposed ordinance would allow subdivision of rural county lands

A group of county residents is quietly fighting developers over a proposed ordinance that would potentially open the door for developers in rural county lands. The ordinance, the group says, would fill the developers' pockets and destroy the rural character of SLO County. The Rural Planned Development [RPD] ordinance seems to have slipped under the radar of most in the county, but not all.

The RPD ordinance originally grew from a countywide problem - an abundance of poorly designed lots. The lots, many holdovers from antiquated subdivisions, were not designed with topography or really much of anything in mind, said Tom Vaughan of Vaughan Surveys; they're just lines over land. And these apparent arbitrary lines are now at the center of the battle.

"Right now there's a lot of lots that are underdeveloped, yet there are starting to be requests to be developed," Vaughan said. The problem is that back when these plots were drawn out, there wasn't any planning for roads, services, or the environment, which makes the plots unattractive to would-be developers and home buyers.

Everyone seems to agree that the plots were poorly planned, but that's where the consensus ends.

"I agree with the defense of the problem," said John Nall of the County Planning Commission. "There are existing substandard parcels, and what do we do with these?"

The RPD ordinance attempts to deal with this problem by allowing landowners to shift parcels around.

Nall doesn't think the RPD ordinance is the solution.

"The RPD would apply to existing underlying legal lots of record," he said. "And we don't know where all of them are."

But others like Vaughan, who is uniquely poised to profit from the RPD ordinance as a surveyor who specializes in finding historical lots on rural lands for clients, thinks there's a lot of misinformation out there about the RPD plan.

Vaughan says that the RPD ordinance would "absolutely not" add any more houses then previously allowed in the rural areas of the county. But Nall clearly disagrees. In the staff report, Nall writes that the proposed land ordinance applied to Rural Lands could create "twice as many parcels as the original configuration ... this could result in a greater number of smaller parcels in rural areas and double the number of lots in areas where these are approved."

Why? Lot size. Currently on county lands zoned Agriculture, Residential Rural, and Rural Lands, only two primary residences are allowed on a 20-acre parcel. This keeps the rural character of SLO County intact while also maintaining a manageable level of inhabitants for fire and safety personnel.

If the board approves the RPD ordinance, a landowner with 200 acres of property zoned Rural Lands - which currently means 20 potential houses spread out over the 200 acres - would be able to shift all residences onto adjacent 2.5-acre parcels. This would in effect preserve 152 acres of land and condense the houses in a mini community, or subdivision. And it's reasonable to assume that a 2.5-acre lot with a house is much more economically appealing to a potential buyer then 20-acre lot with a house.

The RPD ordinance "allows underlying lots on a parcel to be scrapped off to an adjacent parcel," says Maria Lorca of Creston Citizens for Ag Land Preservation. "It's cunning how it does this."

"The land owners have the option to decrease parcel size and reconfigure lots to less than would otherwise be allowed through the land use ordinance. So you wind up with a cluster of parcels," he added. "It's going to increase the potential for development in these areas if you create those size parcels."

And that's exactly what Lorca is afraid of. The RPD Ordinance would make it remarkably easier for a developer to build houses by creating many more builder-friendly lots.

"If RPD passes it will accelerate the pace of development and virtually eliminate minimal parcel size," she said. "This sort of sprawl is at the expense of taxpayers. Everyone is going to pay for increased services or bear the burden of diluted services."

On June 28, when the SLO County Board of Supervisors discussed the RPD Ordinance, about 30 people showed up to speak against the plan. The opposition included the Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club, fire and safety personnel, ECOSLO, Air Pollution Control District staff, Canyons and Streams Alliance, Paso Watch, Santa Margarita Residents Together, and Creston Citizens for Ag Land Preservation, among others.

Speaking in favor of the RPD Ordinance were Tom Vaughan, the surveyor who would potentially help clients find old lots on their land for future development, and Roy Ogden, an attorney whose clients, he says, anxiously await the passage of the RPD ordinance.

In a letter Ogden wrote to the board he states: "My clients have been struggling to hang on, hoping to be among the first to participate in this cutting-edge, environmentally smart legislation ... My clients are beginning to questions the wisdom of their choice to await the new, land-friendly legislation and to not pursue conventional development ... particularly in light of the present real estate market."

Vaughan, who described the June 28 board of supervisors meeting as "pretty brutal," said he's not sure why anybody would oppose the RPD ordinance. Regarding development encroaching into rural lands, "I've got news for you," he said. "The potential is already there."

The Air Pollution Control District (APCD) weighed in also, writing to the board that "from an air-quality perspective, the proposal is inconsistent with the land-use planning strategies recommended in the District's Clean Air Plan." And in perhaps the most succinct summary of the plan, Aeron Arlin Genet, APCD planning manager, writes, "The net effect will be to allow residential densities to substantially increase in areas far removed from urban infrastructure and essential commercial services. Such development would increase pressure for adjacent agriculture and rural lands to also split down to smaller parcel sizes."

The RPD ordinance is currently under review to the county's various advisory bodies. The board opted not to spend the money having staff conduct an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) yet. This fall it's likely that the board will take the matter up again, deciding to either adopt, kill, or study the ordinance more.

Nall said he's taking this time to educate the advisory bodies about the RPD ordinance. He hopes to hold a single presentation for all of them. And residents who opposed the RPD ordinance are taking this time as a unique opportunity to squash the proposal before the county spends the money conducting an EIR.

"If the advisory groups don't look favorably on this," said Nall. "It appears to me the board doesn't want to spend money doing an EIR and probably will tell us to discontinue spending."

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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