Rejecting concerns from adjacent industrial neighbors, the Santa Maria City Council agreed Tuesday night to allow a developer to build an apartment complex on South Oakley Court, and backed a shorter fence for the back side of the project. (Contributed photo)

Rejecting concerns from adjacent industrial neighbors, the Santa Maria City Council agreed Tuesday night to allow a developer to build an apartment complex on South Oakley Court, and backed a shorter fence for the back side of the project.

The proposed Oakley Court Apartments on the 800 block of South Oakley Court would have 30 units in a mix of two-story and single-story apartment buildings, with eight buildings on the vacant 2.1-acre parcel.

Despite the opposition, the council narrowly approved changes to the land-use designation from General Industrial to High Density Residential, while also amending zoning from Planned Development/General Manufacturing to Planned Development/ High-Density Residential. 

Council members Gloria Soto, Michael Moats and Mike Cordero voted for the land-use and zoning changes, while Mayor Alice Patino and Councilwoman Etta Waterfield voted against them. 

Soto said she visited the site and talked to neighbors, who did not complain about the train traffic, but recalled hearing about the need for more housing while she campaigned to be elected to the council.. 

“I think that right now, as we’re looking again at the importance of infill and the lack of housing … I think it’s crucial that we seriously consider the importance of this project rather than letting an opportunity pass us by,” Soto said.

The bulk of the debate centered around the Santa Maria Valley Railroad tracks running near the proposed development site and potential impacts on future residents of the apartments proposed by Gustavo and Lupe Alvarez.

“I don’t see this as a threat to the railroad. I think the railroad’s going to do what the railroad does, and if the railroad makes more noise, then it’s going to make more noise,” Moats said. “And we’re all in favor of economic vitality and moving lots of goods through the railroad.” 

The risks will be borne by the applicant, since renters upset about the railroad noise would move out of the apartment units, Moats added.

“I think it’s important when we do housing we do it right,” Patino said, expressing concern about the long-term effects on the railroad, which plays a significant role in the local economy.

She noted that the Williams Feed Lot was closed years ago amid complaints from neighbors as housing sprouted near the longtime business.. 

“Don’t think it can’t happen to the railroad,” Patino said. 

“This railroad is growing and is continuing to grow, and it’s going to be noisy,” Waterfield said, adding that she didn’t want to hinder the railroad’s growth. 

Representatives  for the Santa Maria Valley Railroad listed several flaws in the environmental analysis of the proposed development. 

The railroad continues to battle assorted problems along its tracks. 

“It’s at least daily we’re honking for trespassers,” said Rob Himoto, Santa Maria Valley Railroad president. 

In a separate item, the applicant appealed aspects of the planned development permit for the apartment complex.

The applicant earned a 5-0 vote for its appeal of the Planning Commission requirement to install a 12-foot-tall fence, instead of an 8-foot-tall fence, to help reduce noise from the nearby railroad tracks.

In a bid to convince the council to approve an 8-foot wall, Lupe Alvarez presented photos of other shorter fences near railroad tracks elsewhere in Santa Maria.

“I think it just shows that a 12-foot wall is excessive for our project,” Alvarez said. 

The applicant abandoned a request for the council to overturn a requirement to provide air conditioning for each unit, a step to help reduce noise and air quality impacts due to the passing trains.

Representative Dan Blough said the developer agreed to drop the request after analyzing the expense versus the cost of delaying the project for several months to meet state environmental review regulations. 

Additionally, with the recent hotter-than-normal weather, Blough said he has enjoyed having air conditioning in his home.

“It’s a little bit of a benefit to the occupant,” Blough added.

This is at least the third proposal for the odd-shaped site zoned for industrial uses.

Previous projects called for 36 affordable units in 2008 and 72 senior apartments in 2014, but encountered road blocks along the approval process. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.