BY BOB CUDDY
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.
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.