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California and the West

Voters Pull the Plug on Growth

Development: Just as San Luis Obispo County experiences building boom, concerned residents oust pro-growth officials in several cities.


ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. — Before this month, San Luis Obispo County was enjoying its biggest building boom in a decade, with nary a dissenting voice heard in the region famous for its flaxen grasslands and majestic oaks.

Shopping centers, golf courses and ranch-style homes were going up in record numbers from Pismo Beach to Atascadero. Homes were being sold faster than anywhere else in California. Commercial construction had surpassed records set in the 1980s.

In the southern end of the county, where the grasslands meet the sea, ground was being broken for one of the largest malls on the Central Coast, a 25-store complex anchored by a Wal-Mart.

Then Arroyo Grande threw a wrench into the machinery.

Voters in the city of 14,000 people, just a stone's throw from Pismo Beach, voted overwhelmingly on Nov. 3 to oust their pro-growth mayor, electing slow-growth candidate Mike Lady, 63% to 37%.

"No one wanted this development," Mayor-elect Lady said of the 350,000 square-foot mall, just one of a dozen out-sized commercial and residential projects either planned or under construction in the county. "I think the citizens spoke with outrage in this election."

Other slow-growth candidates were elected to city councils in both Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo.

The slow-growth victories are not likely to stop a series of already-approved projects that will soon pepper San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande and other communities. Still, the election made it clear that an increasing number of county residents are worried about the building explosion.

This year, the boom reached the edge of the Arroyo Grande farmland owned by the Dickens family for four generations.

As a crew of Spanish-speaking farm workers hunched over a cabbage field, hammers could be heard pounding from a vast construction site just across the road. Teams of workers were busy installing roofs for what will soon be a new, 43-home subdivision. Until recently, the property had been the site of a walnut orchard.

"Taking that land and growing homes on it doesn't make any sense," said Jim Dickens, 37. "We've got residential property coming up to our door now."

The 40-acre parcel offers a look, in microcosm, at the pressures that are transforming many a rural corner of San Luis Obispo County.

Dickens' great-grandfather bought the land in 1905, growing vegetables and other crops alongside a number of Japanese American neighbors, including the Saruwatari family, who still own a farm nearby.

The property lies in the flood plain of the Arroyo Grande Valley, with rich alluvial soil that allows farmers to raise up to three crops a year. On Dickens' land--which he leases to the Ikeda family--a good crop can bring in about $10,000 an acre. And yet, Dickens says the land would be worth even more if he pressed the city for a zoning change--from agricultural to commercial--and sold out to a developer.

More than a few local farmers nearing retirement have made similar calculations and decided to sell. This fact is troubling to the county's small, but influential agricultural preservation movement.

"This valley is a national treasure," said Ella Honeycutt, 69. "We save wilderness and everything else, but our best farmland is up for grabs."

Frustrated by the direction of city government, a group of local agricultural preservationists approached Dickens to run for council earlier this year. He agreed, even though as a high school counselor, he had never considered entering politics.

"If we don't take a stand now, growth could quickly take out the rest of the valley," he said.

The agricultural activists raised $5,000 for Dickens' campaign. On Nov. 3, he finished first in a field of four candidates. He will take office, along with the new mayor, Dec. 3.

"I believe that this [City] Council will be a little more cautious," said Mayor-elect Lady. The message of the election, he added, was simple: "We like our open space, our rural character, and we're not willing to give it up."

A.K. (Pete) Dougall, the outgoing mayor, was a strong supporter of many of the new projects. The pro-growth council often spoke of a high-tech future for Arroyo Grande, with new companies providing badly needed jobs.

Construction of the Five Cities Town Center, with the Wal-Mart as its anchor, is already underway--the wood frames of the buildings are just beginning to rise from a ridge overlooking U.S. Highway 101. Arroyo Grande recently approved a 180-home development called Berry Gardens in the last remaining parcel of farmland near the city center, the former site of a strawberry field.

A business park and 100 new homes are planned for Arroyo Linda, just outside the city limits. On nearby Nipomo Mesa, the Woodlands project would include another business park and more than 1,300 homes.

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