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Santa Margarita Ranch lawsuit heads to court 

Almost four years since the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors overruled their planning commissioners and approved the sweeping Santa Margarita Ranch L.L.C. development in an 11th-hour split decision, the issue is now on its way before a county judge.

SLO Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford will hear arguments from attorneys for environmental groups North County Watch and the Endangered Habitats League, as well as attorneys for the county, on Nov. 16 in Paso Robles.

The nonprofit organizations filed a petition in SLO County Superior Court in January 2009, challenging the board’s December 2008 approval of the first of several phases of development for a major agricultural cluster subdivision some 10 miles from San Luis Obispo.

The organizations contend the county’s placid approval of the project violated its own “smart growth” policies and Clean Air Plan; will harm native grasslands, oak woodlands, and local wildlife; and will “forever compromise the cultural integrity” of the historic core of Santa Margarita Ranch.

In a special Dec. 23, 2008, meeting, the former board of supervisors—including, at the time, supervisors Katcho Achadjian, Jerry Lenthall, and Harry Ovitt—overruled the planning commission’s earlier rejection of the project.

“By a bare one-vote majority, the board brushed aside the considered recommendations of government officials at every level, overruled the careful findings of the planning commission, and approved the project,” the suit reads.

The organizations also contend that that the board “prejudicially abused their discretion” in certifying the project’s environmental impact report without adequate compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.

North County Watch and the Endangered Habitats League are seeking to overturn the EIR certification, as well as the conditional use permit issued for the project.

Though the county was named in the suit, the board of supervisors voted to take a neutral position in the case. The applicant, Santa Margarita Ranch, L.L.C., remains the real party in interest.

In a May 29, 2012, brief filed in response to North County Watch and the Endangered Habitats League’s initial arguments, attorneys for Santa Margarita Ranch, L.L.C.—Santa Barbara-based Richard Monk and SLO-based William Walter—not only challenged the assertions about CEQA violations, but argue that the project is consistent with the county’s general plan and land use ordinance, as well as with California zoning law.

SLO County Chief Deputy Counsel Tim McNulty told New Times that witnesses are not likely to be called in the Friday hearing, and that arguments are expected to last into the afternoon.

No tentative ruling has been issued in the matter, and Crawford is likely to deliberate for up to 90 days before issuing a ruling, according to North County Watch attorney Sara Clark.

 

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