New Times, San Luis Obispo, CA
New Times - San Luis Obispo, CA

Space, Sprawl, and SOAR

Just as predictable as the gray whales migrate along the California coast each year and our State’s radiant poppies grace local landscapes every Spring, so too is the predictability that SLO County residents will once again be called on to protect their environment. SLO County now stands at the edge of a pivotal juncture in determining the future of San Luis Obispo County. And just as surely as there are those who willingly accept monetary gain in exchange for selling their city’s "Green Belts," there are also others who energetically oppose them doing so.

Sadly at the heels of many other cities and counties (Fresno, San Fernando Valley, Orange County, San Jose, Bakersfield, etc.), San Luis Obispo is following behind their bulldozer tractor tracks. And for many, the forecast is scary. Numerous proposals for developing the Central Coast have alarmed residents. Rejected and approved proposals have ranged from the Los Osos' Monarch Grove, Hearst’s North Coast, Woodlands in Nipomo, and Santa Margarita Ranch to the SLO Airport Expansion, Wal-Mart in Arroyo Grande, Eagle Hardware (Home Depot), Spanish Oaks Resort & Golf, and Dalidio. These projects and proposals are enough to make "SLO County slow growthers," environmentalists, and other conservationists shake in their gardening clogs. Fortunately for SLO County, however, hope exists. The majority of registered voters in three other notable counties have set rather modest, but yet unprecedented examples of how to affect the urban sprawl process. Their solution is modeled after a cornerstone of our democracy: take it to the people for voters’ approval.

SOAR (Save Open space Agricultural Resources) is a set of ballot initiatives aimed, not at either stopping growth or fostering it, but instead aimed at merely ensuring the peoples’ chance to vote on growth in their community. Portland, OR, Napa, CA and Ventura, CA all experienced the growing pains of honoring "attractive city" titles. Various forms of SOAR initiatives were used to preserve their city’s reputation by restricting developers and speculators from excessively capitalizing on their precious green belts. Robert Jones writes in the Los Angeles Times Nov. 98, "The experiences of Portland, Napa, and [Ventura] suggest that [Soar] will work. Portland, Napa, and [Ventura] have not suffered as a result of their decisions to control sprawl. In fact, Napa has maintained its status as a premier tourist destination. And Portland has experienced robust growth with in its core." Ventura County League of Women Voters also announced that [SOAR] is the most effective way to stop urban sprawl because it empowers voters. Ventura voters approved SOAR in 1998 by a wide margin.

What is SOAR? SOAR is a set of proposed ballot initiatives that allow voters the opportunity to prevent their precious agricultural and open space lands from being overrun by urban sprawl. The county SOAR initiative will protect those lands already zoned Agriculture, Open Space, Rural Lands, or Residential Rural by requiring voter approval to rezone these lands for development or urban use. The California Supreme Court has upheld SOAR. The power to control zoning shifts from a few city and county officials to the residents whom they serve. SOAR doesn't apply to schools, parks, or public facilities nor does it change zoning of any lands without voter approval. SOAR affirms property rights landowners already have. The currently proposed initiative will remain in place for 30 years, until December 31, 2030. In short, SOAR allows voters a chance to substantiate their concerns about urban sprawl.

The uniqueness of SLO County stands to benefit from SOAR. SLO County's 1998 General Plan states, "Diverse open-space resources provide a major attraction to visitors from around the world and make this county a special place to live. They are a defining characteristic of SLO. …San Luis Obispo County is [also] home for at least 22 animal species and 21 plant species having state or federal status as rare, threatened or endangered." The open space and agricultural lands surrounding our city and county are far more valuable and precious as they currently exist than if they were to host strip malls, extra fast-food franchises, and enlarged parking lots. Mark Arax of The Los Angeles Times Oct. 99 writes, "Development in the Central Valley has failed to keep pace with the costs of growth, according to city budgets and interviews with local and state officials. What cities are spending to serve the new suburbs-- extending police and fire protection, water, sewer, and streets--often greatly exceeds the property and sales taxes generated by the growth." In the eyes of many conservationists, urban sprawl advocates neglect to consider the long-term ramifications of bulldozing open space and developing rich farmland. City Council member, Jan Marx, writes, "The paving of some of the world's finest farmlands is one of the longest-running and most insidious crises confronting the state of California." Thus, SLO County's spacious uniqueness deserves to be protected.

One local family has joined the caused of preserving one of our surrounding green belts. The Guidetti family has ranched their 1,500-acre land, just south of the city, since 1941. But instead of selling out to developers and speculators, John Guidetti has decided to leave a "legacy of open-space preservation." With the endorsement of SOAR activists, Guidetti will purchase a conservation easement on his ranch with the money donated from the city and county of San Luis Obispo, private donations, and several other grants pursued by the Nature Conservancy. According to The Tribune, December 5, 1999, "In exchange for $1 million, [John Guidetti] relinquished his right to subdivide the ranch, more intensively farm it, or drill for oil on it." And even though the easement limits Guidetti's right to excessively use the resources of his land, he still owns the land and has the right to ranch it just as his family had done decades before. "It's a good deal," many argue. Everyone benefits.

The increasing interest to debate the topic of urban sprawl on political, economic, and environmental fronts is faithfully gaining momentum. So just as sure as the colorful brilliance found in a Montana de Oro autumn sunset equals the pleasure shared in eating locally grown produce from a Thursday night Farmer’s Market, so too is the certainty that several residents among us will continue to defend the right for next year's batch of California Poppies to bloom around us.

For more information concerning this article, visit

Anthony Haldermanlikes wild California Poppies and locally grown produce. If you do too, contact him at


Home | ESL |Writing & Publishing| Halderman Photographs | Real International Stories | Textbooks| | Halderman Award | E-mail