County Finishing Up Los Osos Community Plan

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

December 18, 2020

County Supervisors took their first look at the Los Osos Community Plan, an all-encompassing set of documents that will guide all aspects of Los Osos’s future — development, habitat conservation, and resource planning — and of course there is controversy over the plans regarding growth and water.

“The Community Plan,” reads a Dec. 15 County report, “and related amendments will put in place the goals, policies, programs, standards, and zoning needed to guide future land use, transportation, and development for sustainable growth in the community over the next 20 years.”

The “Los Osos Community Plan,” and the “Los Osos Habitat Conservation Plan,” are key segments of the Estero Area Plan, covering Los Osos, Cayucos and rural Morro Bay, which the County has been working to update for nearly 30 years. Due to the sewer controversy and more, Los Osos was separated out form the rest of the Estero Area Plan around 2003. The rest of the area, Cayucos and rural Morro bay, had their portions of the plan approved in 2004.

Supervisors also were asked to certify an environmental impact report on the plan(s) including the Habitat Conservation Plan. It was a mouthful of documents interconnected in their scope and authority, and all subject to approval of the Coastal Commission.
And with all the myriad of potential issues, with the biggest of all time the sewer solved, the main concern of citizens and water purveyors was future growth, and how and when it would be allowed.

The three water companies in town — the Community Services District, Golden State Water, and S&T Mutual — are all under a 2015 court judgment that called for them to develop a “Basin Plan” for managing the groundwater to protect it from seawater intrusion. Groundwater is the town’s sole source of drinking water, and the wells are extremely deep, as much as 800 feet down, into the lower aquifer. An upper aquifer separated by a clay layer deep underground, is where the town’s septic systems discharged into for roughly six decades. And it too is being considered for future supply.

With most production wells located on the western side of the community, seawater intrusion has been documented far inland, nearly to the Los Osos Library at its worst, leaving the town to essentially be under a water moratorium after solving its sewer moratorium that started in 1988.

In letters to the County, all three water companies urged that the water plan coordinate with their efforts.
The CSD’s General manager Ron Munds noted the 2015 Stipulated Judgment and the work all three have done to address it. “The results have been encouraging,” Munds’ letter said, “but the CSD is recommending that a very cautious and measured approach be taken when planning for new development to proceed.”

Munds adds that the Basin Plan’s intent is to reach sustainability for the people and businesses that are already there, not future growth.

In response to this, County spokeswoman Erika Schuetze said, “The Los Osos Community Plan [LOCP] requires new development to fund water conservation projects to offset their water demand and creates growth limits to ensure that new development in Los Osos does not exceed the available sustainable water supply from the groundwater basin.”

The CSD’s worried that an actual funding mechanism was not put in place, “that would assure new development pays its fair share of the costs to supply and deliver water to that development.”

Schuetze said, “The County Building Code already requires new structures in Los Osos to fund water savings projects for existing development to offset their water demand at a 2:1 ratio to receive a building permit, resulting in a net decrease in water use community-wide. For example, to build a single-family residence, the owner needs to fund projects that save 300 gallons per day, such as replacing old, inefficient washing machines with new, efficient washing machines that use less water.”

Normally, such a retrofit program would focus on toilets, but installation of water-saving fixtures was already done throughout the community as part of the sewer project.

Golden State Water is a private company that manages roughly half the customers in Los Osos. General manager, Mark Zimmer, wrote to the County as well. “Although much of the Basin Plan is focused on ensuring a sustainable and affordable water supply for existing users, the basin Plan also contemplates the requirements that need to be met before new development should be allowed to proceed within the Basin, including a completion of a Basin Infrastructure Program and satisfaction of identified Basin monitoring metrics.”

Zimmer adds that the Basin Plan has four phases — Programs A through D — and their customers have paid for everything so far.
Among the main projects is to drill more wells on the eastern side of town, away from the seawater intrusion. Indeed, the CSD recently chose to drill a new well at the site of the old community septic system and leach field at Bayridge Estates. That project has a lot of environmental review work and permitting to go, as well as drilling test wells. It’s proposed to be some 700 feet deep and was the best choice of six the CSD looked at.

Zimmer said recent data shows the health of the groundwater basin is improving, but the various metrics they used to judge the health “have yet to show consistent improvement.”

Schuetze noted that the County’s plans do address growth limits. “The LOCP would extend the current building moratorium to the entire urban area, not just the sewer service area, until two additional expansion wells are constructed by the Los Osos water purveyors, which are intended to mitigate seawater intrusion. The wells are fully funded and expected to be completed within a few years.”

The plans include exceptions to the moratorium, she explained. “Exceptions to the moratorium would include accessory dwelling units, affordable housing, conversion of second-story commercial space to residential use, permits in progress when the LOCP is adopted, and permits for parcels that already have water offset certificates when the LOCP is adopted. These exceptions would still need to meet the water offset requirement.” That requirement was a 2:1 ratio of water savings.

The growth limit is 1.5%, she said, over 5 years. Such plans are supposed to be updated every 5 years but that deadline is rarely met. At that rate, there could be a total of 420 “new dwelling units,” permitted according to Schuetze.
Then, a new growth rate would be set according to the available sustainable basin yield based on best available data.
“Based on average existing household water usage in Los Osos,” Schuetze said, “the 420 new dwelling units would use about 63-acre feet per year (AFY) of water.”

The County figures to save twice that in retrofits the new dwelling units would be required to meet. “The estimated water savings potential for additional conservation programs is 160-350 AFY,” she said, “which is sufficient to meet the 2:1 offset requirement for the anticipated new development in Los Osos.”

The plan updates also satisfy two special conditions that he Coastal Commission placed on the community sewer project, namely that “vacant parcels shall not connect to the sewer until the County updates the Los Osos Community Plan to incorporate a sustainable buildout target supported by the safe field of the groundwater basin, and prior to development of undeveloped lots, the County shall prepare and implement a Habitat Conservation Plan for long-term preservation of environmentally sensitive habitat areas and species throughout the community.”

Among the elements of the Community Plan is a vision statement that was developed by the local advisory council; it calls for a community where urban development is contained within the existing urban reserve line; occurs at a controlled rate and is sustained by resources and services. That URL would be clearly defined by a greenbelt, “including productive agricultural lands and open space that are managed to protect the Morro Bay Estuary, including scenic and natural resources.”

As for the Habitat Conservation Plan or HCP, the Community Plan calls for infill development within the URL, but the HAB is supposed to protect environmentally sensitive spots around town, setting up a mitigation system.
In essence the HAB sets the price for mitigating destruction of sensate habitat on private property.

“Fees for new development are as follows: $0.75 for Restoration/Management/Administration (per disturbed square foot) and $0.14 for Habitat Protection (per disturbed square foot). The fees will be assessed by multiplying the area of ground disturbance in square feet by each of the fee types.”

That money is supposed to fund buying lands to add to the greenbelt around town, or other conservation projects. That’s why the plan doesn’t map environmentally sensitive habitat areas within the URL, because they are subject to the mitigation formula.

Among the major land use changes is rezoning of an 8.5-acre parcel on Fairchild Way from commercial to residential multi-family.
Also, the 56-acre open area along Los Osos Valley Road between Broderson and Ramona Avenues, called Morro Shores Mixed-Use Area, will change from residential single family and residential multi-family to residential multi-family, residential single family.

The plans also has a “Public Facilities Financing Plan” with a list of infrastructure improvements ne4eded in town — utilities, transportation infrastructure, streetscapes, parks and public facilities. The list tops $69.6 million.

The plans also changed the official potential population at build out going from the current 28,688 to 18,000, a 30% decrease. That’s because the new plan changes the mix of housing. Currently, Los Osos is 85% single- family homes.
“New development potential would be about 75% single-family, resulting in an overall mix of 79% single-family communitywide at build out.”

That new build out would add 6,487 single family homes (versus 5,426 existing), and 1,695 multi-family (895 currently) for a total of 1,861 new dwelling units.

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