Anti-Camping Initiative Qualifies for June Ballot

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.

February 10, 2022

Opponents of RV camping on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero have qualified a ballot initiative to let voters decide if the practice by the Harbor Department will be allowed to continue.

The trio of local residents pushing for the initiative — Betty Winholtz, Carole Truesdale and Jim Curnutt — announced last week that their signature drive had been “certified.”

“The City Clerk,” Winholtz said in an email, “will be presenting the Notice to the City Council at their next regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 8. At this time, the Council for their action: can either adopt the initiative as an ordinance or put it to a vote of the people.”

City Clerk Dana Swanson, in her certification letter dated Jan. 28, said, “That after proponents filed this petition, based on the County of San Luis Obispo Registrar of Voters’ Signatures Verification Certificate and in compliance with California Elections Code, I have determined the following facts regarding this petition:

• Total number of signatures filed by proponent raw count: 1,027;

• Total number of signatures verified as sufficient: 869;

• Number of signatures found insufficient (non-duplicate): 120;

• Number of signatures found insufficient because of duplication: 38;

• Total number of signatures required to qualify (10% of 8,196 registered voters): 820.”

“Based on the above,” Swanson concluded, “the petition is deemed to be sufficient.”

The City Council will have to decide, perhaps at its Feb. 8 meeting, whether to simply accept and adopt the initiative’s language into law, which essentially bans all types of camping on The Embarcadero and at Morro Rock.

This will greatly affect the Harbor Department’s pretty successful RV Camping pilot program that was begun in September 2020 with an emergency and temporary permit from the Coastal Commission.

This was in part due to the extraordinary measures that were taken, shutting down all “non-essential” businesses in California, starting in March 2020 in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Among the businesses that were initially deemed “non-essential” and subject to closure were motels and restaurants, which after initially shutting down completely for a couple of months, were allowed to open for takeout orders only, or with limitations on occupancy for the lodging properties.

That placed an immediate pinch on the Harbor Department’s already tight revenues, and sent the department scrambling to find new sources of revenue.

The RV camping pilot program was one such revenue booster, but it was controversial from the start, when the initial proposal included several camping sites at the base of Morro Rock and at Target Rock. 

Once those were removed, the program breezed through the City review and Coastal Commission scrutiny almost unnoticed, that is until people actually started using the spaces.

The department had three spots in the parking lot at Coleman Park, adjacent to the Harborwalk and right in the face of everyone who uses that popular walking and biking pathway along the bay.

It was those sites that raised the initial outcry, as numerous residents complained that it was ruining the experience of being down by the water, among other complaints. The Coleman park sites were eliminated after the pilot program’s first year.

Camping sites were set up in three other areas — nine in a storage yard by Morro Creek; seven in the Triangle Lot on Front Street; and three spaces in a lot near Tidelands Park — giving the department a total of 19. And they paid off in a big way.

Harbor Director Eric Endersby said, “It’s safe to say we’ve netted about $160,000” in the first year. 

The department sold the idea predicting about $150,000 a year in new revenues. That was good news, as the City Council has struggled for several years to come up with ways to increase the Harbor budget after it lost its single largest revenue source, the outfall lease for the power plant, which had given the department $250,000 a year.

But the power plant closed in 2014 and cancelled the outfall canal lease.

The performance of the camping program — which started off slowly but soon caught on — prompted the department to ask for an extension of the pilot program and to apply last October to the Coastal Commission for a Coastal Development Permit to make the camping program permanent. 

The permit application seeks seven Triangle lot spaces, three at Tidelands and nine at Morro Creek, but the citizen’s initiative could derail that plan if it passes.

For sure the spaces by the creek and at Tidelands Park would be covered. But there is some question over the Triangle Lot spaces, as the initiative states “The Embarcadero” as the prohibited area, and Winholtz had indicated the Triangle Lots spaces would not count. 

However, the Maritime Museum, which is also located in the Triangle Lot, has pointed out that its mailing address — which was give to them by the City — lists it as being on Embarcadero. 

And the Maritime Museum Association would like to take over the area where most of the seven spaces are located for a Quonset Hut that someone wants to donate and they would like to set up as a small theater and exhibit building. It would be a major expansion of the museum.

So among the decisions that will have to be made with regards to the Initiative is whether the Triangle Lot’s spaces are included in the ban if it passes?

Another question to answer is when will it appear? Winholtz said they would rather it appear on the June Primary Ballot. 

“Since there is ample time between the city council meeting [Feb. 8] and the deadline to submit ballot items to the County Clerk-Recorder, March 11,” Winholtz said, “the proponents desire the initiative to be put on the June Primary ballot if the city council chooses not to adopt the initiative into the City’s municipal code.”

The City ordinarily wouldn’t have anything on the primary ballot in June, however, Councilwoman Jen Ford will have to face election if she wants to stay on the council. 

Ford was appointed last summer to fill the seat of the late Councilman Robert Davis. Davis had been re-elected to the council in November 2020 and died the following July. 

Ford was appointed to take his seat but under the municipal code, she must face election at the first opportunity, which the Council decided would be June instead of holding a special election. Whoever wins that race will serve out Davis’ natural term through November 2024.

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