There is a well-known saying that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And this is the case with the Dana Reserve residential development, in which the developer promises affordable housing for the South County; improved traffic; and the preservation of 17,000 trees.
Let’s look at these promises.
It has been reported that the project will include 104 units appropriate for low-income residents, roughly 8% of the project’s 1,300 units. However, it has also been reported that over 400 single-family homes at Dana Reserve will be restricted to owners age 55 or older, creating a senior ghetto in the middle of the project. These homes, presumably for retirees, many of whom come from out of the area, are expected to sell for $1 million or more. So much for affordability.
It has also been claimed that the project will actually improve traffic in the area. Hmmm. With thousands of newly generated trips from the project, the reader is invited to figure out how, exactly, that’s going to be the case.
And, oh yes, the “trees.” Let’s be sure we have this right: In exchange for official permission to destroy more than 3,000 oak trees on the property — trees that could be preserved — the developer promises not to destroy 17,000 oak trees located in a steep, rugged, basically inaccessible canyon miles away from Nipomo which are under no threat whatsoever, as “mitigation” for bulldozing the project site.
This is not mitigation.
The project, as proposed, will result in the complete loss of oak woodland and chaparral habitat at Dana Reserve with no effort to offset it. In fact, approval of this so-called mitigation could well mean the end of the county’s Tree Protection Ordinance, since it is hard to see how the county could say yes to this scheme and then say no to the next party that comes along with a similar one.
There are many other environmental impacts, which are basically ignored by “statements of overriding considerations” (bureaucratese for “it doesn’t matter enough”). Sadly, the county appears to be buying into this approach.
There are alternatives to the proposed project, many of them actually described in the project’s Environmental Impact Report. Others have been or will be proposed by local citizens. A development half the size (600 to 700 units) of the one proposed would still be one of the largest ever in San Luis Obispo County, and it can be done while preserving the woodland habitats. It would require less water, significantly reduce infrastructure costs, reduce pressures on the Lucia Mar School District and generally reduce other impacts on the community. Then, if there are unavoidable losses of habitat, they can be truly mitigated on-site, instead of using a phony preservation scheme carried out somewhere miles away.
This smaller project would still have the full range of home types as in the proposed project, but it would reduce impacts, and obviously protect the existing natural resource values of the site much better than the current proposal.
Everyone recognizes that the county needs more housing. The question is, how much, what type and where? It is unreasonable to expect Nipomo to absorb a third of the state-mandated housing need for the county. And the county doesn’t need more $1 million plus housing as half the available units right now are selling for over that price. What is needed is building toward the lower end of the spectrum, catering toward the “missing middle.”
Concepts detailing the above ideas are included in the Environmental Impact Report, but none has been seriously considered. We can do so much better than this.
The project has some attractive features: 104 low-income housing units, first-time buyer assistance and a site for a satellite Cuesta College campus. These are fine, and they are generally supported, but they do not justify the massive destruction of habitat that the project proposes. Such features can be incorporated into the project without all that destruction.
Tell the county Planning Commissioners and Board of Supervisors to send this project back to the drawing board, where it can be made consistent with the existing County General Plan, Nipomo-area planning directives and the desires of the residents of Nipomo.
Neil Havlik was the natural resources manager for the City of San Luis Obispo from 1996 to 2012. He remains active in natural resource issues in SLO County.