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The battle for Shandon 

A small community struggles to stay small

To get to Shandon from the 101, exit Highway 46, travel 15 miles, turn right on West Centre Street, and travel approximately two miles to the town center.

Directions to this town bear explanation because, with a population of about 1,200, less than half a percent of the people in San Luis Obispo County live there.

It’s not the place that comes to mind when people think of the next thriving metropolis on the Central Coast—and the people who live there like it that way. Greg McMillan, for example, is a Shandon resident who raises beef and makes olive oil. He’s also a member of the Shandon Advisory Council.

click to enlarge LOFTY PLANS :  When county planners and developers look at Shandon, they see a lot of potential, but residents don’t seem to have such aspirations for the town of about 1,200. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • LOFTY PLANS : When county planners and developers look at Shandon, they see a lot of potential, but residents don’t seem to have such aspirations for the town of about 1,200.

“And my nearest neighbor is about two miles away, and that’s too close for me,” he said.

His complaint is the primary issue many of the town’s residents have with a plan to turn their community from a commuter town to a small commercial hub with a larger population. It all started about a decade ago when county officials began putting together an update of the Shandon Community Plan, which hadn’t been touched since 1981. And the closer look might not have happened without a hefty dose of money and interest from three developers.

Shandon’s community plan update really got rolling in 2007 with an Environmental Impact Report. About 85 percent of the funding came from three developers—Fallingstar Homes, Peck Ranch Entities, and MZIRP—who collectively pitched in about $1 million to process a community plan update that would also help pave the way for commercial and residential construction in and around Shandon.

As the plan began to materialize, it started spitting out potential population numbers for the next 20 to 25 years. The first estimate was that the town could have a population of 14,000 to 15,000 people at build out.

“And they went crazy,” County Supervisor Frank Mecham said of residents’ reaction.

They were looking at a plan funded by developers and an emerging desire by county planners to use Shandon as a pilot project for strategic growth, a set of increasingly popular planning standards aimed at keeping dense commercial and residential community cores with surrounding affordable housing and vast expanses of open space. And for rural communities like Shandon, the only word that probably matters is “dense.”

“I do not know who is pushing this, but it seems to be something that has a life of its own now,” resident Jim Sinton said at a Nov. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Shandon’s plan has been labeled a pilot project for the county’s recent strategic growth strategies. The town has “good bones” for a strategically planned community—it has an elementary school, it’s walkable, and it has a community park—and there’s enough open land to flesh out a town fit for a planner’s dream. Jay Johnson, the project manager for Shandon’s community plan update, said the county wouldn’t have a blank slate to plan a town, “but pretty close to it.”

“Yeah, this is our first big opportunity,” he said.

Except few people probably moved to Shandon with hopes of urban infill; the town doesn’t even have its own gas station. Think of the county’s plan as something akin to trying to drag a family from Fyffe, Ala., to San Francisco without complaint.

“You can’t design these rural communities like an urban community and make everyone happy,” Mecham said.

It’s not that residents don’t want or need infrastructure and some development: Some of the big wants in the community include a new bridge over the San Juan Creek, a sewer, and, as residents discussed at a recent Shandon Advisory Council meeting, fixing a street light near the community park. What they don’t want are hundreds of new homes—and to get stuck with the bill for infrastructure improvements.

“We felt like we were getting railroaded on this thing at the beginning,” McMillan said.

Shandon is in dire need of two major pieces of infrastructure: a community sewer and major improvements to Highway 46. According to a county staff report, the total cost of all the required public facilities is projected at more than $54 million, and only 44 percent of the cost could be offset by fees on new development. There hasn’t been a commercial permit filed in Shandon since 1980 because the town lacks a sewer, according to a county staff report.

Residents aren’t the only ones who think they’ve got something to lose. In the years since developers pushed to update the community plan, MZIRP has dropped out of the process entirely, and the ones who stuck around seem to be waiting on the sidelines. Fallingstar Homes, for example, originally planned to build about 800 homes on roughly 1,300 acres. The company has since sold off all but 300 acres.

Whoever tries to build first, under the standards proposed in the recent incarnation of Shandon’s community plan, is going to be paying out big time.

“Unless somebody wants to front millions and millions of dollars, [Shandon] is probably going to sit there just the way it is,” Fallingstar Homes Chief Financial Officer Ray Peloso told New Times. “And some of the local people want to keep it that way.”

In fact, residents fought tooth and nail to scale back the lofty development plans originally conceived, as well as to get a few concessions for themselves, McMillan said.

“And we’ve stayed on it like we’re one of those Jack Russell terriers,” he said. “You can’t get rid of us.”

McMillan said the Shandon Advisory Council and residents stayed on top of the plan at every step of the way—moving from a rough outline to an Environmental Impact Report before going to county planning commissioners and eventually county supervisors for approval—but a lot changed when the district’s supervisor changed from Harry Ovitt to Mecham in the 2008 election.

Some residents felt the plan was being jammed down their throats, and Mecham said it was his goal to find something more fitting of a small, rural town.

“I’m not going to force anything on you that you don’t want,” Mecham said he’s told Shandon residents.

Over the past six months, residents seem more pleased with the way their community plan is shaping up.

On Nov. 15, county supervisors unanimously approved the Environmental Impact Report for the community plan, but moved final approval of the plan off calendar to allow for time to address some lingering concerns. Since the process began, the potential for growth in Shandon has scaled down to about 5,200 residents over the next 20 to 25 years. But there are hanging issues, the most significant of which is what to do about cherished groundwater supplies and future supplemental water.

Johnson, the county planner, will soon be sitting with a group of residents to hold a handful of meetings and clip off the loose ends. Strangely, at the end of the process, the side that seems to have lost the most is the developers who put up the money to begin with.

“We didn’t drop out; it’s up to the county to process it,” Fallingstar’s Peloso said. “We just kind of pulled our horns back, and we’ll have to see what the county approves.”

News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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