Can Butterflies Get Out the Green Vote?

Times Staff Writer

Ernie Dalidio knows all too well that lots of folks in this progressive little college town don’t want to see a Target and a Lowe’s sprout on his old family farm. But after more than 15 years of futile attempts, he figures he may have found the key to winning their approval for his bitterly contested shopping center: Bring on the butterflies!

Dalidio wants to start a “natural habitat preserve and viewing area” so shoppers can stroll to a eucalyptus grove and gaze out at the fluttering monarchs. He also plans to set aside 13 acres for an organic farm.

He wants to carve out a mile-long bike path. And open a seven-day-a-week farmers market, landscape with native grasses, install some waterless urinals, use earth-friendly paving in some of the parking areas -- in short, to do what it takes to paint a collection of big-box stores pleasingly green.


“It’s become a will-of-the-people kind of thing,” said Dalidio, whose plan goes to a countywide vote in November.

Dalidio’s proposed shopping center might be the only one in the nation garnished with organic veggies, but he’s hardly the only developer who sees political and commercial value in going green.

Over the last few years, green building has outgrown its Birkenstocks. To curry community favor and save on skyrocketing utility costs, mainstream retailers have been pouring millions of dollars into once-exotic energy-saving measures.

In McKinney, Texas, a 200,000-square-foot demonstration Wal-Mart store comes complete with wind turbine and wildflower meadow.

In Chicago, Target has experimented with “green roofs,” replacing vast expanses of concrete and asphalt with plants to trim heating and cooling costs.

In Savannah, Ga., a renovated shopping center called Abercorn Common offers choice parking spots to hybrid vehicles and irrigates its greenery entirely from collected rainwater. This year, it became the first shopping center to earn certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, which sets standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

“A large number of retailers are on the verge of making very large commitments to building green,” said Rick Fedrizzi, the council’s director. “Where you’ve got good daylight, nontoxic smells, good ventilation, good thermal comfort -- that’s a place shoppers will linger.”

Even so, Dalidio’s critics say his plans are an example of “greenwash” -- gussying up a terrible idea with environmental makeup to lend it respectability.

“All these things are definitely window dressing,” said Christine Mulholland, a member of the San Luis Obispo City Council and a staunch opponent of development on Dalidio’s 131-acre site.

Like many other opponents, Mulholland believes that a new shopping center -- no matter how green -- won’t improve the planet as much as simply farming the land.

“I find it totally unacceptable to be told that this is nonviable agricultural land,” she said. “My daddy managed to farm on hardpan, but this is the kind of land farmers drool over.”

Standing amid the weeds dotting the currently uncultivated fields, Dalidio looked out at U.S. Highway 101 just to the east, a shopping center just to the north, and land being graded for car dealerships just to the south.

“We’re an island in the city,” said Dalidio, whose family has owned the land since 1920.

Dalidio, 67, was born on the property and lived there into his 20s. For decades he farmed it himself, then leased it to other farmers while he ranched, as he still does, at other spots along the Central Coast. A couple of the original buildings stand beside fields that once were planted in lettuce and peas, beans and bok choy.

Like growers throughout California, Dalidio said that over the years he has had a tough time farming amid subdivisions and shopping centers.

There was the day a cloud of his pesticide drifted through a nearby neighborhood, and another when thick plumes of smoke from an agricultural burn rolled through a department store jammed with Christmas shoppers.

“They had to open the doors and get big fans going to push the smoke out,” he said. “Unbelievably, I wasn’t sued.”

But Dalidio’s problems haven’t swayed his neighbors. Although the San Luis Obispo council approved his shopping center proposal in 2004, that decision was overturned last year by opponents who mounted a citywide referendum.

“We had it approved only to have it undone by a bunch of crazies,” Dalidio said.

The rejection ended the city’s plan to annex his land. That left Dalidio with the option of seeking approval through the county, which convened a citizens panel and hired a facilitator from Berkeley.

“People on the committee let us know they didn’t want the ‘everywhere’ solution,” said Vic Montgomery, Dalidio’s chief planner. “They wanted the San Luis Obispo solution.”

Back at the drawing board, Dalidio and his financial backers from Texas prepared for the greening of the shopping center. They changed its name from Dalidio Marketplace to Dalidio Ranch. They cut its retail area by about 15%. They penciled in the organic farm beside the freeway, for maximum visibility.

The plan now calls for the 1904 farmhouse owned by Dalidio’s grandparents, Katie and Florino, to be moved across the field and plunked down next to the new strip of farmland and the new farmers market. A bronze statue of the Dalidios would stand in a roundabout, and their house could become home to an organic restaurant.

“What better icon could there be for the county’s agricultural heritage?” asked Montgomery, whose RRM Design Group has designed five Los Angeles buildings that meet green standards.

The design of most buildings on the Dalidio site would be largely up to the tenants, who have not committed to green features, Montgomery said.

Even so, the center as a whole would offer a smorgasbord of green features. Solar panels would serve as eye-level educational displays on bus-stop shelters. The parking lot would be broken into four sections crisscrossed by walkways and dotted with hundreds of trees. In some areas, “pervious” paving would allow rainwater to seep into the earth. All buildings would exceed the state’s energy efficiency standards by 10%.

Outdoor lights would be muted, keeping the night sky as dark as possible. Drought-resistant native plants would thrive in “demonstration gardens,” composting toilets would be installed in restrooms at the farmers market, and the two planned soccer fields would be irrigated with recycled wastewater from an on-site treatment plant.

“It gives us street cred with the locals,” Montgomery said.

To the project’s opponents, though, it’s simply wrong to see a shopping center -- and, in later phases, offices and 60 units of “workforce” housing -- sprawling over prime farmland.

“We’re losing our character,” said Rosemary Wilvert, a writer who grows organic fruits and vegetables in her San Luis Obispo yard. “We’re going to become just like everyplace else.”

On top of that, voters nearly 30 miles away would get to decide an issue that should be handled by closer neighbors, said Wilvert, the city of San Luis Obispo’s incoming poet laureate.

“Shopping is magic to some people,” she said ruefully.

The center would create horrendous traffic jams, Wilvert and others warn, strain county fire and police services, pave over a once-green gateway to San Luis Obispo and bring in the kind of big-box stores that already exist nearby.

Even worse, they say, the countywide initiative would allow Dalidio to skirt the California Environmental Quality Act.

Under the law, developers who appeal directly to the voters are not required to submit lengthy and expensive environmental impact reports.

Dalidio denied he was evading an environmental review, pointing out that more than 40 hearings had been held and two full environmental impact reports had been completed on the project’s previous, larger incarnation. He said a direct appeal to county residents made sense.

“If we got approval through the county, environmental groups already had told us they’d take us to another referendum,” he said. “So what’s the point? Let’s cut to the chase.”

Opponents this week formally mounted what they hope will be a $100,000 “No on Measure J” campaign.

“Tourists come here for open space, fresh air and a thriving downtown,” said Mila Vujovich-LaBarre, one of the campaign leaders. “So why create gridlock on the streets, congestion on the 101, and have one of our top resources depleted?”

Dalidio disagrees, saying the shopping center won’t tarnish his hometown’s rural charm.

“Just because we’re developing the land doesn’t mean we’re anti-environmentalist,” he said, adding that the butterfly sanctuary was his idea.

“When I was a little kid, I’d go out there and watch them,” he said. “It’s a natural enhancement, so why not share it with the public? It’s a no-brainer.”