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(US CA) Economy or Environment? August 15, 2005 9:13 AM

The Tribune Poll shows many county residents are torn over a desire for more jobs and development vs. preservation of our natural resources and open space

Bob Cuddy


The Tribune

BY BOB CUDDY

The Tribune

County residents are almost evenly split in their beliefs about whether the county is successfully balancing economic growth and environmental protection, The Tribune Poll shows.

But of those who think that balance is uneven, a solid majority is more likely to believe that concern for the environment and open space unduly outweighs an emphasis on economic development and jobs, The Tribune Poll shows.

Interviews with 400 respondents showed residents are almost evenly divided between those who believe the county is maintaining good balance and those who don't.

But 25 percent think county policies tilt too far toward environmental protection, controlling traffic and protecting open space. Nineteen percent said the county skews too far toward jobs and economic development.

The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent. And while the polling is an indicator of sentiment, it provides key findings on the defining issues of Central Coast politics.

The results contradict a common belief that San Luis Obispo is an environmentalist's county, says Robyn Letters of Opinion Studies, which conducted the poll.

It also gives a measure of the public opinion that will shape future decisions throughout the region as policy makers struggle to accommodate the needs of residents old and new without destroying the land on which they live.

It's that land that brought many of them here: The county has grown from 145,000 to 250,000 in 25 years.

"We don't want San Luis Obispo to become what many of us have moved away from," says county Supervisor Jim Patterson.

He says with careful planning "we can protect the environment and still accommodate growth." (By decreasing habitat for animals. PJ)

Are the scales balanced? The poll shows not everyone thinks so.

"The environmentalists here run the show, and that's a damn shame," said respondent Richard St. Cyr, 38, of San Luis Obispo.

Environmentalists don't think they are in charge.

"This county is being eaten alive by development," said Andrew Christie, coordinator for the local Sierra Club chapter.

Follow-up interviews show that, regardless of how they answered the poll questions, most respondents are well aware of the tension between economic development and protecting the environment, and many are conflicted.

Many respondents said they moved here from Southern or Northern California or the Central Valley in hopes of escaping traffic, smog, overcrowding, and the big city's other ills. But they don't want to see the county stop growing.

Joni Nelson of San Luis Obispo was glad to leave behind Laguna Hills and its "overcrowding." But she voted for the Dalidio Ranch Marketplace in San Luis Obispo, which would have put a shopping center, hotel and residences on 131 acres that now are farmland.

"It's inevitable that things are going to be developed," she said. "Economic growth is somewhat stifled right now."

Joe Repetto, a general contractor who came to Templeton from the Bay Area, said county restrictions on building have slowed job growth.

But not long after an initial interview with a Tribune reporter, he called back to clarify.

"I don't want to seem I'm all pro-growth and don't care about the environment," he said. "Both are important."

If county residents are divided on growth, their opinions are also divided along other lines.

Republicans are more likely to consider the focus on environmental issues to be excessive.

Democrats are more likely to believe there is balance.

Newer residents -- with five years or less in the county -- are more likely to perceive balance.

Long-time residents -- 20 years or more -- tend to see too much focus on the environment.

People without college degrees are more likely to feel there is too much emphasis on environmental issues.

Men are more likely to say that too much emphasis is put on the environment as opposed to the economy.

A higher-than-expected percentage of people -- 12 percent -- are "disinvested" in the question, saying they are uncertain about or don't know the answer. Opinion Studies pollster Melanie Rys attributed the response, which for typical poll questions is around 5 percent, to the complexity of the question and the fact that some people do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable to respond.

North County

Residents in North County trailed only South County in believing there is not good balance between the economy and environment. However, the breakdown shows a statistical tie between those who think there is too much focus on the environment and those who consider the balance to be tilted toward the economy.

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 August 15, 2005 9:14 AM

Even those who say the balance is good, like Repetto, worry that imbalance is not far away.

In his case, he sees bad news for the economy.

"It's just a matter of time," says Repetto, who moved to Templeton from the Bay Area three years ago. "The county is more strict abut what kind of business they're going to allow in here. That's definitely going to have an impact on jobs."

Leslie Escalera Taylor, 48, who has lived at Lake Nacimiento for nine years and runs a vacation rental business, sees threats to the lake's rural character. She calls the quality of life there "extremely high," but adds that it is "endangered by growth at the lake."

If it is not moderated, she says, "this is going to be the Beverly Hills of North County."

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo was the only region where respondents said economic issues received too great a focus. Twenty-three present said the county has put too much emphasis on economic development; 21 percent said it focuses too heavily on the environment. But the difference is insignificant because it falls within the poll's margin of error.

Still, City Councilwoman Christine Mulholland said the apparent lead by those concerned about the environment would make sense in the city.

"I'm not surprised," she said. "San Luis Obispo has been seen as the liberal bastion of the county. And a lot of people are seeing a lot of development around here."

"The Marketplace is a cautionary tale," she added. The Dalidio Ranch Marketplace shopping center proposal occupied considerable city time and public attention earlier in the year, culminating in a referendum on April 29 that temporarily killed the project.

South County

Thirty-one percent of South County residents said too much emphasis is put on environmental issues, while only 19 percent said the economy gets too much focus. Of the four regions surveyed, it is the most critical of the county's emphasis on the environment.

Only 61 percent of South County residents say the county is maintaining a good balance.

Nipomo is the crux of South County growth and there are efforts to slow it. The Board of Supervisors capped the growth rate at 1.8 percent earlier this year, down from the county-wide 2.3 percent.

But what happens, county Supervisor Katcho Achadjian asked, if you say "Stop growth in Nipomo"?

There would not be enough money to pay for the infrastructure to support current residents, he said. "You're darned if you do and darned if you don't."

Even in relatively pro-growth South County, there are those who worry about the balance tilting toward development.

Andrew Lopez, who moved to Grover Beach seven years ago with his wife and three children, says planners "should take a good look at what they're losing." Lopez moved from the small but smoggy town of Moreno Valley, near Riverside.

He believes increased growth cuts into the "small-town atmosphere, where people looked out for each other and cared about each other. I loved that."

North Coast

North Coast residents are more likely to say that environmental and economic interests are balanced. But of those who don't, more than twice as many -- 21 percent to 10 percent -- say the environment gets too much emphasis compared to the economy.

Shirley Bianchi, the two-term county supervisor for the North Coast, contends that San Luis Obispo County is environmentally oriented. But, she adds, "we're not solidly anything."

"Cambria is notorious for fighting," she said. "The only time everyone agreed was when McDonald's tried to open here." The entire town opposed it.

So when people in the North Coast communities complain that there is too much attention paid to the environment, it just reflects the region's diversity of thought, she said.

Such complaints also reflect a real problem. "There are no jobs up here. The only jobs are in agriculture or the tourist industry."

Bianchi believes that those who said the economy needs more attention on the North Coast "want housing and jobs."

She prefers to word the question differently, rather than presupposing a contradiction between advancing the economy and protecting the environment.

"Why does it have to be either-or?" she asks. "The question should be, how do we protect the environment and at the same time create jobs."

County residents have made it clear through this poll that asking and answering Bianchi's question will be the key political issue of the future.

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