The planning commission's deliberation Wednesday over a proposed project at the northwest corner of Betteravia Road and Highway 101 became a conversation in setting a precedent for future development in the city of Santa Maria.

In several revolutions for aspects such as zoning and amendments for the specific plan, the commission decided to give full approval to the project, which will now go to the city council for final decision.

"People are be going to coming into this project and judging the city by what they see," Planning Division Manager Peter Gilli said.

Developers hope to turn the 113-acre site into the home of automobile dealerships, Lowe's Home Improvement and other retail, a park, a possible elementary school and a relocation site for Costco and the gas station it hopes to build. What the commission faced was disagreements with the developers, led by NKT Commercial on how, where and to what extent the different areas within a new specific plan for the site will be landscaped.

"We've been trying to work with the development team to put enhancement into the projects so that we can have the best image that is portrayed by the project," Gilli said.

The concerns of city staff were to align the project with the City Council and planning commission's joint mission in recent years to improve the aesthetics of the city, and for any new development to follow suit. On the other hand, the main priority for city staff in this area is the opportunity to increase city revenue.

"The two major goals of the project are to strengthen our fiscal base...but we also want to take this opportunity to make this project improve our image as much as possible," Gilli said.

In their deliberations Wednesday, city staff, the developers and the planning commission found that the two goals can be conflicting.

"This is a very significant decision in finding the recipe for balance," Commissioner Gayle Pratt said.

One example was an emphasis on making sure any auto dealers that come into their portion of the area — known in total as Enos Ranchos — will be allowed to use tall palm trees rather than shorter fuller trees which they say would block visuals of their products for sale not only from the street but from Highway 101.

Another example was discussion over the amount of trees that should be required of the large parking lots at Costco and other retails areas, because the developers see the requirement of too many trees to be blocking the name of the shops as people drive in, which could hurt their marketability.

Commissioner Robert Dickerson voiced his support for the city's mission to improve the image of the city, supporting city staff's recommendation for strong regulations on landscaping.

"I think it is the right direction for Santa Maria and ultimately if we want our city to be a more beautiful place...we have to start making the decisions," Dickerson said. 

Ultimately, many of the landscaping issues could be resolved through the deliberation over planning development permits when the Enos Ranchos site is brought back to the planning commission on March 16. Both the city staff and developers wanted to work together and try to compromise in making sure, no matter some of the more specific regulations, that the project move forward.

"We do have some philosophical issues that we brought before you today," Laurie Tamura of Urban Planning Concepts said on behalf of the developer. "We would hope that that would not delay your action to approve the specific plan."

With some minor changes to their resolutions, the commission gave the project their full support. Gilli said that the deliberation was really down to fighting for the best possible outcome.

"We're very optimistic that even though there's a lot of back and forth on the specifics of what we're doing on the image, when all is said and done, we're talking about having a really good project at this site be a slightly better project," Gilli said. 

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

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