The Santa Maria Planning Commission made the first in what will be a sweeping round of zoning changes to the Airport Business Park plan this month, as developers attempt to make headway on the long-delayed project at the city’s southern end. 

At their March 17 meeting, commissioners approved a zoning change and plan amendment for the northwest portion of the 740-acre business park project site, focusing on a 26-acre section currently used for farming and bordered by Union Valley Parkway and Highway 135. 

The amendment changes the area’s current communities facilities zoning, which allows the development of public and governmental facilities, to a mix of light industrial and airport commercial zoning, allowing for a detention basin, developments like a self-storage facility and a wider range of commercial uses.

According to Santa Maria Public Airport General Manager Chris Hastert, such changes to the smaller parcel are the first steps toward bringing the whole project in line with environmental restrictions and updated development ideas.

“We started with the smaller 26-acre piece and got it all worked out, and then we’re gonna apply that same math and process to the larger piece,” Hastert said.

Plans for the Airport Business Park first were created in the 1980s, with the goal of developing a commercial area and golf course to ensure the long-term success of the airport.

However, in 2008, the plan underwent an overhaul after much of the area was identified as habitat land for endangered species including the California tiger salamander and California red-legged frog.

Within the redesign, 100 acres of the land were set aside as conserved habitat land, along with other environmentally-conscious adjustments that changed original development plans. However, the 26-acre parcel does not contain any conservation land.

“Most of the issues that we’ve had with the business park and not being able to develop it stem from the biological issues related to [the] California tiger salamander,” Hastert said.

Due to delays in development, one of the central elements of the original plan — the 18-hole golf course — will likely not make its way into the final project, Hastert said.

“My guess is … golf is probably not going to be an element in that plan,” he said. “We had a feasibility study that said it’s not likely to break even in that location, so we don’t want to compete with country clubs and some of the other private courses around.”

The Planning Commission approved the amendments and an accompanying environmental impact report in a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Tom Lopez dissenting due to concerns about the airport project competing with planned developments in the downtown area.

“If we’re serious about our downtown, I think that’s an area that would more so benefit from a project like this, instead of having to do a General Plan zone change and make it work on [this] property,” Lopez said, adding that the architect working on the plans for the Airport Business Park is also working on plans related to the downtown development. 

Other commissioners said while the development of downtown Santa Maria is important, the creation of a shopping area near the airport will not detract from those potential plans.

“Every project that we approve, we always say, ‘what about downtown?’ I don’t think that this project will take away, I think it will just add to Santa Maria. This will service the travel that comes to Santa Maria, that really doesn't have much close by,” Commissioner Maribel Hernandez said. 

City Planner Frank Albro reminded the commission that the changes made at this point are just for zoning, and that any development proposals will have to come before the commission again for a permit and other conditions of approval.

“The remainder of the airport plan is also in question at this point, so there may be some further analysis of the circulation, of the road use, and how those are designed,” he said.

Another element of the project that remains to be completed by the city is the removal of a mobile home park on the property and the subsequent relocation of its over approximately 300 residents.

The topic of the mobile home park was at the forefront of project discussions around 2008, with residents of the park hiring legal representation to negotiate the terms of their leases while the fate of their homes were in limbo.

"That project … to close [the] mobile home park is stalled, just due to the cost, and there’s no adequate area to move those homes, too," Hastert said at the commission's March 17 meeting.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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