The Santa Maria City Council gave approval Tuesday night to a development package that would bring commercial retail, apartments, auto dealers and a designated space for a school and a park to the corner of Betteravia Road and Highway 101.

"This is going to be a regional shopping center because of its key location," Planning Division Manager Peter Gilli said. 

Along with auto dealerships, developers plan to turn the 113-acre site into seven zones that would be designated for different uses, such as the park and the residential space.

Led by NKT Commercial, developer plans already include a Lowe's Home Improvement and a relocation site for Costco and the gas station it hopes to build. 

And similarly to the Planning Commission's deliberation over the project, discussion zeroed in on the balance between gaining revenue from the development and beautifying what is being called "the front door" of Santa Maria by city leaders.

Issues the council faced included whether sidewalks in the area should be along the street or farther in and whether canopy trees or palm trees should be in front of the auto dealership sites.

Representatives of the auto dealers pleaded for as much visibility as possible for their future businesses, arguing that canopy trees hurt visibility of the automobiles for sale and also their brand recognition for potential customers driving along Highway 101.

At least five city residents spoke in opposition to siding with the developers, arguing that canopy trees would be more pleasing to city residents.

The council voted unanimously to allow the auto dealers to have palm trees along a section of Bradley Road, which will be reconstructed to go north and south through the middle of the development area.

Canopy trees are still required throughout the development, however.

The Planning Commission had been split 2-2 on the issue.

"I believe this is really important because of the type of business this is," Mayor Alice Patino said.

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Patino did say, though, that she doesn't want to see future developers coming in and arguing for leniency because of the approval of this project.

One of the bigger concerns of the council was whether the area designated for auto sales would be required for a designated number of years to be for new cars, or whether it could be used for any other sort of development years from now.

The council voted for an auto overlay, which means the space will have to be used for car sales indefinitely until someone comes forward asking for a change in city regulations at a future City Council meeting.

"I just think we need to hold them to the fire right now," Councilwoman Etta Waterfield said.

More on the development specifics will be decided at future planning and council meetings at dates to be determined.

Abby Hamblin covers city government in Santa Maria and Guadalupe for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter: @AbbyHamblin.

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