As we all await the final environmental impact report (EIR) on the Dana Reserve, it’s valuable to look at how the county process for the Dana Reserve project has reduced community involvement.
Changes in the 2019 Affordable Housing Ordinance allows developers to work more closely with county staff in the planning process to assist the developer in avoiding snags or lawsuits that may impact or delay project approval. In practical terms, the change effectively limits public involvement in the planning process, especially at the formative stage so the project is closer to being “sewn up” before the public sees the details.
The worthy goal of getting affordable housing built sooner would be better served by engaging the community proactively throughout the planning process.
This is playing out now as the Dana Reserve developer and San Luis Obispo County staff work closely to tweak and modify the plan behind the scenes. The result is an uninformed public that is limited to addressing its comments to the original and possibly outdated aspects of the draft EIR. When the final EIR comes out in just a few weeks, it will be a rush to the gate to catch up with changes and only days to prepare for a long overdue public forum held by the South County Advisory Council, which is scheduled for July 24.
Such forums should happen at the outset when community input can actually help shape a proposed development plan to fit the community needs. At this stage, the forum becomes a referendum for or against the project. We can expect to hear members who have been disenfranchised from the process finally getting their say.
To add to community frustration, the final EIR and forum are only a few weeks before the Planning Commission’s critical consideration, where well-informed stakeholder feedback could significantly help commissions address the problems in the project, such as the six unmitigatable impacts already identified in the draft EIR.
Rather than being community driven, this project could accurately be characterized as a dangerous developer-led shape-shifting process with a complicit county staff.
Also at this stage, the developer and county planning are too enmeshed and both extensively invested in the final EIR, and are more likely to push for approval than to consider constructive input from community members.
If this project does end up in a lawsuit, the Dana Reserve may be SLO County’s first large test case for a new legal precedent. A recent decision (Save Civita Because Sudberry Won’t v. City of San Diego (2021)) allows developers to work more closely with county planning staff and doesn’t require them to show all the changes in the draft EIR in the planning process.
This is too big of a project with too many moving parts and too many changes behind the scenes with too little community involvement. With the imminent release of the final EIR and the upcoming July 24 town hall meeting, now is the time to be heard.
Ultimately it will be citizens who fully confront the problematic elements of this project. We hope our county representatives are listening.
Cynthia Bodger is an executive board member of the Nipomo Action Committee, a nonprofit group dedicated to maintaining and enhancing Nipomo’s rural character, unique biodiversity, and economic vitality. Send a response for publication to [email protected].