San Miguel Ranch One man’s dream is nightmare for others

February 29, 2008

When Brent Grizzle first gazed at what he would later describe as the “gently rolling contours” around the tiny North County town of San Miguel, the developer would later note that he “immediately recognized the special potential” of the land.

Grizzle’s interest led to him to purchase 550 acres of that agricultural land in 2004 for a little less than $2 million, speculating that with a little support from county government officials he could orchestrate the profitable development of the property.

Then, a year later, Grizzle announced plans for a sprawling residential and business community northeast of the town, and sought preliminary approval from county supervisors.

He got that on a 3-2 vote which authorized the next steps, preparation of an environmental impact report (EIR) for the project and possible zoning revisions in the county master plan.

Grizzle’s dream of a “relaxing retreat,” as he likes to call San Miguel Ranch, is proving to be a bit of a nightmare for a number of other people who live in and around the bucolic community of San Miguel.

In a burg where the biggest ongoing source of excitement centers on persistent rumors of country singer Willie Nelson’s purchase of both a local vineyard and the historic Elkhorn Saloon, Grizzle’s development concept is fast gaining detractors. But strength of numbers might not be enough to carry the day; many of those who question the sagacity of plans for San Miguel Ranch find themselves involved the political arena for the first time.

Grizzle has told numerous residents he isn’t planning to do the actual project development, according to Denis Degher, chairman of the San Miguel Advisory Council (SMAC): “He’s going to farm it out to other developers, because by then he’ll have approval for the parcel map.”

Is the development deck stacked against the home team? Is there an epic power struggle looming over those gently rolling contours? Or is the route to Grizzle’s goal — county approval of parcel maps — now cluttered with myriad uncertainties capable of sinking the whole project?

There remains the completely unsettled question of an adequate water supply to support the demands of such a far-reaching, resource-dependent development. A recent citizen-funded opinion poll of North County residents reported that 91 percent of those interviewed expressed genuine concern about future water supplies, as well as the source of those supplies. (See related article on’s main page, “A growing flood of North County water concerns.”)

Not insignificantly, political support for San Miguel Ranch’s future remains razor-thin.

But apart from these significant realities, in the end, simple economics may be the final arbitrator of this grand plan. A devastated housing market and a radical, nationwide slowdown in new home construction imperils the project. And the diminution of both personal mortgage funding and public improvement project monies casts a further pall.

A Web Site attributed to a group calling itself San Miguel Area Residents Trust (SMART) suggests the project is “classic urban sprawl” and that Grizzle’s claim that he “wants to be a part of the San Miguel community” is disingenuous.

“Grizzle is a developer who quietly purchases agricultural acreage in small towns or agricultural areas and tries to convert it by amending [local government] plans and rezoning into basic residential urban sprawl,” according to the SMART Web site. “This process allows Mr. Grizzle to increase the property value to be resold at a significant profit to himself before he moves on to the next town or agricultural community to repeat the process, leaving the community behind with a home builder or contractor that may basically build as they please under the minimum building and zoning codes, without input from the community.”

A woman who answered the phone at Grizzle’s Holtville office Wednesday said he is out of the country and won’t return until “the first or second week of March.” She said Grizzle was the only person authorized to discuss the project with a reporter. That same evening, however, Grizzle attended a meeting of the San Miguel Advisory Council.

Grizzle, a Cal Poly graduate, now lives in Southern California. The Grizzle Development Co. Web site said he is trying to “solve some of the housing shortage” in San Luis Obispo County.

“This property is a natural addition to the town because of its location to the freeway and near public utilities. Allowing existing towns to grow is a logical way to solve some of the housing shortage in the county, while providing trade-up opportunities for existing residents,” according to the Web site.

Although an assured future water supply sufficient to meet new demands of northSLO County development remains arguable, First District Supervisor Harry Ovitt will wait for the EIR before making a decision on San Miguel Ranch, said an aide.

“We won’t know much until we can see the report,” said Ovitt’s chief assistant, Cliff Smith.

“There are some very big water rights issue involved in this,” said Degher, SMAC’s chair. “Farmers are concerned, and theirs is a valid concern. Harry [Ovitt] voted for this project the first time, and I don’t know how he’ll vote on the EIR.”

Degher is more at home in a music studio than in a community council meeting. A Grammy-winning music producer, engineer and guitarist, Degher has worked with Buddy Guy, Miles Davis, Andrea Crouch, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Johnny Cash and many others. For the time being, though, Degher is working with politicians and planners.

Degher said the proposed San Miguel Ranch “was the catalyst that got a lot of people activated out here. That’s what brought me in, got me involved. The concern for water has united a lot of people.”

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By: Anonymous on 3/1/08

I simply wanted to split 20 acres in half. We were to build a second home on the 10 acres for our family.

The BOS said it was zoned Ag, so 20 acres is the minimum.

At the same time Ag land on Cemetery Road is split to build 45 homes and this 500 plus acres (currently being farmed) is getting the go-ahead. When I asked about these rojects, I was told "they are in a desireable location for growth, near the freeway" I can see both parcels from my land,

Another huge section af ag land near Shandon has been split into 10 acre parcels and has vacant homes on it.

I guess I did not have enough "grease" for Harry's wheels.

By: Anonymous on 3/1/08

The existence of a "housing shortage" in this county is highly debatable, and one may want to wait a year or two for the market to return to equilibrium after the biggest bubble in history before starting any rash development projects.

A purported housing shortage was at the heart of the scandalous Tribune series a few years ago authored by Jerry Bunin right before (or after?) he went to work for the Central Coast Homebuilders Association. Those articles and the Tribune in general completely missed the bubble (though one imagines this was due more to staggering economic ignorance than any willful omission).

And in any sort of market, it's far from clear that building more homes would have any long-term effect on affordability, especially since we have laboratory results to the contrary in Southern California. However, some outlying areas like San Bernadino — LA's analogue to San Miguel — are seeing some of the most severe consequences of bubble-driven overbuilding, with tumbleweeds rolling past unmowed lawns and foreclosure notices.

By: Anonymous on 2/29/08

What should also be noted is that this project was approved over objections from the county's planning staff, and was approved on the very same day this Board unanimously endorsed smart growth principles.

Follow the money.

Member Opinions:

By: Anonymous on 3/5/08

Not the "D" word?? Banish them to poverty!

See? We all say that sitting in our homes that somebody built way back when.

Ya'll meed to get over yourselves! We live in a freeking coastal dessert! It's not the Kona coast of the islands!

Let em build. Poeple need homes. If you disagree then go live in a tent so somebody can have your house!

Freeking envirinazi lefty loons! Grow up!

By: Anonymous on 3/2/08

Sounds like collusion & material for a Grand Jury

By: Anonymous on 3/1/08

It's easy. As usual, just follow the money. More affordable homes? They are not ever going to be more affordable as they are now and in the next couple of years. Just look at all of the short sales and foreclosures. Hundreds of homes will be selling for way below cost in the next couple of years.

Water is also a big controversy. It becomes a big issue if you want to build homes for people, but if you want to plant grapes and water them-go for it. Like I said just follw the money.