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Margarita Ranch appeal off to rough start 

It took more than an hour just to summarize the reasons why the Santa Margarita Ranch housing project should not be built. No final decision was reached.

SLO County supervisors worked well past their usual quitting time on Nov. 4 in order to simply begin the appeal hearing process. The 111-unit agricultural cluster subdivision a few miles from Santa Margarita has been mired in controversy and fraught with problems since it was proposed.

The Planning Commission eventually denied the project on Oct. 9 after weeks of argument and political infighting. If the first appeal hearing was any foreshadowing, then the project owners still have a long road ahead.

The project staff report is nearly 1,000 pages and growing. Ranch owners put together a 38-page appeal of the Planning Commission’s denial, which the staff broke down into 11 major issues. During the brief time available for the appeal hearing, the team of staff working on Santa Margarita Ranch laid out reasons why the appeal was unfounded and effectively why the project went against county land-use policies.

“There is really not an existing development within the county that is comparable to Santa Margarita Ranch,” Environmental Specialist Lynda Auchinachie said.

If built, this Santa Margarita Ranch development would increase the town’s population by about 25 percent, staff members said. Ag cluster developments have historically compacted the residential development in a tight group with large areas of open space surrounding. Santa Margarita Ranch spreads its 111 lots over 676 acres with small alleyways of grazing land in between. But staff said cattle—large skittish animals—and humans often don’t live well together.

They also reported on the 11 unavoidable environmental impacts that included 1,154 additional car trips per day, building over native habitats, and urbanizing a historically agricultural area. At a previous meeting, a planner working on the project said Santa Margarita Ranch had more unavoidable impacts than any other project he had seen come through SLO County.

The board crammed the appeal hearing at the last minute so there was no opportunity for public comment. But even two hours after the 5 p.m. adjournment time, the room was still packed with people and about two hours of public comment are expected at the next hearing. The hearing will continue on Nov. 18, although it is still unclear whether there will be enough time for supervisors to make a decision or be forced to continue it again.

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