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Rules matter 

"Aghast" (adjective: struck with amazement or horror –Webster's) is an old-fashioned word. Now seldom heard, it was in wider circulation circa 1905, when the tract map for the Fesler Ranch was filed with the San Luis Obispo County Recorder.

At that time, cars and movies were novelty items, women couldn't vote, and there was no radio, penicillin, or modern land-use planning. The non-existence of that last item has the distinction of being codified into law in the state of California. The courts have been clear: A land owner is not automatically entitled to a developable lot because, once upon a time, somebody drew some lines on a map without reference to the regulation and improvement of the property—before there were such things as land use ordinances, incompatible uses, urban reserve lines, and resource constraints, or much awareness of sensitive species habitat, traffic congestion, the increased burden of private development on public infrastructure, and the consequences of directing growth onto rural and agricultural land.

That's why, as the SLO County Planning Department explained it to Fesler Ranch in January 2018 when it applied for such certificates: "maps recorded in the unincorporated areas between 1893 and 1919 are not deemed to create parcels recognizable by certificates of compliance."

And that's why the Sierra Club thinks "aghast" is the word that best describes the reaction of SLO County planners and the County Counsel's Office at the July 17, 2018, meeting where Supervisors Lynn Compton (4th District), Debbie Arnold (5th District), and John Peschong (1st District) displayed their determination to violate state law and a fundamental rule of land-use planning in order to issue those unconditional certificates of compliance. They discarded the Planning Department's denial of those certificates and certified that the 12 parcels thus created comply with subdivision laws after all.

Don't take our word for the reaction of professional staff in the room. You can watch the palpable dismay mounting as the action unfolded in real time in the online video record of the Fesler Ranch appeal, the last item of the day at the board's July 17, 2018, meeting.

Before the final vote, Assistant County Counsel Tim McNulty said, "That's gonna open up a door for more than just Mr. Fesler."

This is "not the appropriate path of modern development," 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson said, and "if we do it here, we've got a whole bunch of other antiquated maps in this county that could certainly argue [for] the same path."

The Sierra Club is suing SLO County because they're right. The county has taken a wrong turn down a path to governance by way of favors for the favored over the rule of law. The Tribune bluntly reported: "Dennis Fesler contributed $198 to Compton's June 2018 re-election campaign, according to public campaign finance documents." Supervisor Compton also stated that she worked with the applicant to put together findings that might conceivably provide a legal basis for the board to uphold the applicant's appeal. In other words, before the board met to deliberate on whether to uphold or deny the appeal—which is to say, prior to the issue coming before them at the public meeting at which the supervisors were supposed to decide how they were going to vote—Supervisor Compton was making a concerted effort to ensure that the vote went a certain way.

Nor can Supervisors Compton, Peschong, and Arnold claim selective deafness or otherwise maintain that they were unaware of the import or likely outcome of what they were doing. Their final action before the vote was to indemnify the county from the cost of any legal action arising from their decision, requiring the Fesler Trust to pick up the tab for defending the board's vote. Such an action is never contemplated when issuing normal certificates of compliance in normal circumstances, and it was so extraordinary in this circumstance that it required a separate agreement.

Four years after the Fesler Ranch filed its 1905 map, Daniel Burnham, one of the most celebrated architects of his time, produced the "Plan of Chicago," which became the bible for city planning. In the preface, he wrote: "The time has come to bring order out of the chaos incident to rapid growth." Burnham's principles laid the foundation for modern land-use planning, including California's Subdivision Map Act. The SLO County board majority just tuned up those principles and that law with a baseball bat.

We don't believe three San Luis Obispo County Supervisors should take it upon themselves to bring chaos out of order, defying the letter and spirit of the law and erasing a century of evolving understanding of what good planning is. For the sake of the residents of rural Arroyo Grande in the short term, and all the human and non-human residents of the county in the long term, we must all hope that a judge will agree and strike down this board's terrible decision. Δ

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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