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Long road for Laetitia 

After five years, SLO County's most environmentally destructive project is still hitting snags

If San Luis Obispo County supervisors approve the Laetitia agricultural cluster subdivision project, they’ll have to explain why 102 homes are worth the cost of a project with more unavoidable impacts than any other project in the county’s history. But it’s still unclear when—if ever—the project will go before supervisors, and things seem to be getting worse for Laetitia.

The most recent problem: Is there enough water?

Originally proposed in 2005, the project’s draft environmental impact report (EIR) wasn’t completed until late 2008. That draft is still undergoing scrutiny. On July 13, county supervisors approved a $167,487 contract amendment to the EIR for a peer review of the hydro geological analysis, basically a study of whether there’s enough water for the homes. It will be the second peer review in about a year. The firm Fugro West already found the EIR water study was incomplete. Geosyntec, a firm out of the Bay Area, now has to review the previous review and attempt to draw a clearer picture of the water table beneath Laetitia.

“It’s probably fairly rare to have a third party, or a second peer review,” county planner Brian Pedrotti said.

The county fronted the contract-amendment costs, but the bill ultimately goes to the applicant, John Janneck, a Los Angeles-based developer. In total, the EIR could cost up to $357,522 once finished.

If approved, the Laetitia project would include 102 residential lots; a sewage treatment plant, and a dude ranch all spread across 1,910 acres. The project also requires the removal of 113 acres of grape vines, later to be replaced with 140 acres elsewhere on the property. Currently, the property houses the Laetitia Vineyard & Winery south of Arroyo Grande.

According to Mike Winn, who serves on both the Nipomo Community Services District and the SLO County Water Resources Advisory Committee (WRAC), there’s probably not enough water to serve the project’s proposed houses—maybe not even enough to sustain the winery operations in the future.

“They have no other source of water,” Winn said. “What’s in the fractured shale under them is the only water that they have and water that they can have. Those homeowners would be buying their home strictly at their own risk.”

Winn described fractured shale as an underground sieve. Unlike traditional basins, fractured shale is full of cracked volcanic rock and even experts have trouble predicting underground water supplies.

“Fractured shale, you never know until you run out,” Winn said.

In March 2009, the WRAC warned in a letter to the county: “The greatest single weakness in the Laetitia project is that the water supply is uncertain.” The letter also repeated past criticism that wine operations drained Los Berros creek, which could be made worse by demand from new homes.

Beyond water, the Laetitia draft EIR lists 23 class 1 impacts; in other words, environmental impacts that cannot be avoided. In fact, Laetitia creates impacts in all but four of the 13 possible categories listed under state law. The highly contentious Santa Margarita Ranch Project, on the other hand, had just 11 class 1 impacts.

“Santa Margarita Ranch was the previous record-holder,” said Andrew Christie, chapter director of the Santa Lucia Sierra Club. “So yeah, this breaks that.”

Five years after the Laetitia application was accepted, two years after the EIR was released, and with a long line of hurdles remaining, has the project been altered to minimize its impacts?

“My understanding was that [the applicant] didn’t make any significant changes to the project description,” Pedrotti said. “We have a project that has not substantially changed from its original conception.”

Pedrotti said planners tell applicants when a project seems headed for denial, but must accept an application no matter how riddled with problems. Reducing the number of lots or relocating homes can often gussy up a development, he said, but Janneck made no such changes.

Perhaps Janneck had planned on his project going before a different Board of Supervisors.

“There’s a different board now,” Supervisor Adam Hill laughed. He said he hadn’t reviewed the project thoroughly and couldn’t yet give an opinion but, “I don’t know how you overcome that number of class 1 impacts."

In fact, Janneck bet in 2008 (the same year the draft EIR was released) that staunchly pro-development former supervisors Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt would remain in office. He contributed $1,000 each to Lenthall’s and Ovitt’s campaigns in January, and another $1,000 to Lenthall that May. However, both incumbents were unseated by Hill and Frank Mecham, who didn’t receive contributions. Janneck didn’t return a call for comment.

Though based in Los Angeles, the developer has a brief history in SLO County. He was behind the 1,320-home Woodland Hills project in Nipomo, which Winn said is the largest subdivision in the county’s history.

But the Laetitia project is bound to break all previous records. If it were still 2008, the project may have had a shot. But today, despite being under review for at least five years, it seems headed for denial.

“I would say it’s pretty clear that the board has gone in the opposite direction,” Hill said.

 

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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