Elaborate garden attraction could bloom in Paso Robles

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Discovery Gardens would feature activity areas with mazes, fountains, exhibits and shows
Discovery Gardens, part of the planned Entrada de Paso Robles resort off Highway 46 East, would be a destination park featuring an interactive entrance building featuring a roofline that simulates giant leaves and leading to outdoor walking paths through four distinct activity gardens, each with its own theme.
The concept — complete with waterfalls, a digital tunnel and mazes — was inspired by property owner Ken Hunter’s trip to Canada’s famed Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, 40 years ago.
He remembers the trip for “just the spectacular beauty,” he said.
The gardens would replace a 27-hole golf course originally approved with the resort complex more than a decade ago, when it was known as Black Ranch Resort.
The commission will also consider a request to remove 175 oak trees, some in poor health, which is less than 10 percent of the oak trees currently on the site, according to the city.
Local tourism officials say, if approved, the gardens would add one more venue to the Central Coast’s diverse portfolio of things to see and do. But residents weary of the North County’s water woes from the overburdened Paso Robles groundwater basin may take issue with adding more development to the parched terrain.
Since its approval in 2002, Black Ranch has changed owners, extended its building schedule and acquired a new name. Hunter, a co-owner of Hunter Ranch Golf Course across the highway, said he purchased the land a few years ago for about $4 million in a foreclosure from local hotelier King Ventures.
It was then that he decided to take the project in a slightly different direction and rebrand it as Entrada de Paso Robles — an entrance to the city.
“It’s been 10 years, and previous owners have tried to attract a hotel developer unsuccessfully even before the recession in 2008,” Hunter said. “I thought that I needed a unique attraction to distinguish Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County from other resorts people are used to going to.”
Hunter has the OK to develop approximately 132 acres of the 386-acre property to phase in 200 hotel rooms, 80 detached casita bungalows, a 15,000-square-foot conference center and a cafe, a detached wine center and a three-hole executive golf training academy. He now needs the city Planning Commission to amend an existing permit to allow for the gardens, which fall in line with the parks, open space and agricultural uses the land is currently zoned for.
Hunter did not disclose how much the proposed project would cost.
“We knew that water was a priority and revising the project we had to do everything we possibly could to reduce usage,” he said.
By replacing the golf course with the gardens, Hunter will be able to reduce the site’s approved water consumption by 58 percent, he said.
It will use potable water from the city for its resort, restaurants and conference center with the rest of the development proposed to use existing wells plunged into the groundwater basin — but not for long. The city is requiring the project to buy into its recycled water program so it won’t have to use groundwater when the recycled water system becomes available in the next decade.
That “would be a significant improvement over what is already permitted for this property,” planning documents say.
Promotional materials for the Discovery Gardens say the attraction will be a place where “guests can leave behind the everyday world and embark upon a journey into the mysteries of nature, the magic of the imagination and even their own minds.”
The indoor-outdoor attraction will have features inside with “mazes, optical illusions and things that are physical and not dependent on computers outdoors for a calmer and more intellectual experience,” Hunter said.
“It’s not just like walking through a nature garden or a botanical garden,” city planner Susan DeCarli noted. “It’s going to integrate a lot of digital imagery, sculpture and different features that provide illusions as you walk through the park.”
One such feature will guide patrons through an underground tunnel of digital trickery that simulates walking through rain, “but you’re not getting wet,” DeCarli added. “It’s going to tap into all of your senses.”
From a tourism perspective, such a destination would be good for the area, said Amanda Diefenderfer, destination manager with the Travel Paso Robles Alliance.
“The concept of a new discovery garden would be a wonderful addition to the family-friendly experience that people find when visiting Paso Robles,” she said. “An attraction of this nature is a great fit for our community as it capitalizes on the Central Coast’s unique sense of place while offering experiential learning to both our locals and visitors.”
The Discovery Gardens could begin construction next year, with development of an educational demonstration garden area and a wine center. The hotel, conference center and golf academy would be built in subsequent phases, though a timeline for those portions isn’t available, DeCarli said.
Public meeting
The Planning Commission meets at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the City Hall/Library Conference Center, 1000 Spring St.
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