Ballot-Box Development Defeated in San Luis Obispo

As many of our clients know, local land use initiatives can provide powerful tools for achieving environmental protection.  Of course, like many good tools, they cut both ways.  Seeking to circumvent rigorous environmental review of their projects, developers have also turned to the initiative.  In San Luis Obispo County, two of the firm's clients successfully challenged one such measure—showing that when developers reach for the ballot box, they often overreach. 

Nestled in a valley below the iconic morros, a line of stark volcanic sentinels stretching inland from California's rugged Central Coast, the historic mission city of San Luis Obispo lies surrounded by fertile expanses of agricultural and ranch land—much of it in danger of succumbing to shopping centers and auto malls.  Just outside the city limits, at the confluence of San Luis Obispo Creek and Prefumo Creek, lies a rare, 130-acre bastion of the region's agricultural heritage.  Blessed with rich, prime soils—making it one of the most productive areas in the region for high-quality "salad bowl" vegetables—the site was identified for long-term agricultural protection in the County's General Plan.

The property’s owners, however, had a different vision.  Over the past decade, they have advanced several proposals to turn this agricultural treasure into another jumble of retail, commercial, and office buildings.  These projects would come at a tremendous environmental cost: permanent loss of prime agricultural land, snarled traffic on Highway 101 and surrounding roads, and flooding problems on both nearby creeks head the list of consequences.

After the voters of the City of San Luis Obispo rejected one such proposal to annex and develop the property in a referendum election, the developers responded with a County-wide initiative measure.  Measure J, as it came to be known, amended the County's General Plan and zoning ordinance to permit a 530,000 square foot retail and commercial complex, office parks, a hotel, and a wastewater treatment plant.  In an attempt to “green” the project, Measure J also threw in a small organic farm and a "butterfly viewing area" along Prefumo Creek.  The real effect of the measure, however, was to strip County officials of any ability to review, modify, or deny the project---even though it proposed dense development in a flood hazard area and a “safety zone” beneath the flight path into the nearby regional airport. 

Citizens for Planning Responsibly (CPR) and the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County (ECOSLO) campaigned vigorously against the measure and retained the firm to analyze its dubious legality.  After the County's voters approved the measure at the November 2006 election, the firm filed a legal challenge on behalf of CPR and ECOSLO, contending that Measure J was unlawful due to conflicts with state law and the County's General Plan.  The San Luis Obispo Superior Court ultimately agreed, holding that the voters cannot approve a development that violates airport safety standards mandated by state law.

The developers have filed an appeal, which most likely will be heard in early 2009.  In the meantime, this prime agricultural parcel has been spared, and both CPR and ECOSLO are continuing their work to ensure smart and environmentally sensible development in and around San Luis Obispo.