Citizen’s Group Fighting for Los Osos

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.

January 13, 2023

They say a small group of motivated people can move mountains, but what about fighting city hall; or in this case, County Government?

Emily Miggins, Becky McFarland and Pam Hoestetter are three neighbors in Los Osos who are among the core of a politically active group of citizens called, “Los Osans for Good Governance.”

The group is not an official non-profit, political action group or anything like that, but are just like-minded folks concerned about the future and more specifically the water supply in Los Osos. 

Start Was About Wildfire

Miggins explained that their group started with working with the Fire Safe Council on making Los Osos safer from potential wildfires. 

“We tried to come together as neighbors,” she said, “to reduce the fire risk.”

Their members live all over town and are regulars at meetings of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Community Services District, the Los Osos Citizen’s Advisory Council and the Board of Supervisors, as well as others. 

Through attendance at all these meetings, and after comparing notes, they concluded, “Something’s not right,” Miggins said during a recent sit-down interview with all three women at the Nautical Bean in Baywood Park. 

Who Are They?

The group isn’t large, averaging about 15-16 active people, they said, and have been doing work they believe is on behalf of the whole town. Though they admit there are many issues in Los Osos their focus has for the past nearly a year, been on one project in particular that was approved by the County Planning Department with an over-the-counter or ministerial permit and built at a house right in their neighborhood on Highland Drive. Indeed, the “guest house” project was at a home behind Miggins’ home.

That small, 2-story, stand-alone addition to an existing home is a 1-car garage on the bottom and a small apartment on top. It’s small but it raised the hackles of the ladies, who wondered how was this allowed?

Process Should Involve the Public

The normal process would have the County receive an application and then send notices to anyone within 300-feet of a project site, McFarland explained, which has been done in the past for similar Los Osos projects. 

Notices don’t go out on ministerial permits, which the County says is normal.

When the lengthier, public process is followed, Miggins explained, people have a chance to comment and more importantly, to appeal a decision, ultimately, to the California Coastal Commission once County appeals are exhausted. 

Commission Disapproves

That’s not to say following that process would have automatically led to a project denial, but given the current stance of the Coastal Commission in regards to Los Osos’ water supply, it probably would have.

The Commission last April sent a letter to the County all but ordering them to cease issuing any permits that would add to the water demand until it can prove there is sufficient water for both the existing population and any future growth; also claiming that a “will-serve” letter from a water company is not sufficient. The letter demanded the same in Cambria, which has its own water issues.

Last April 19 in a letter from Dan Carl, the Commission’s director of the Central Coast Office in Santa Cruz and addressed to County Planning Director, Trevor Keith, Carl points to the water supplies and calls for an end to certain Coastal Development Permits (CDPs) being accepted or processed.

“As the County is well aware,” Carl’s letter reads, “including from the County’s designation of an LCP Resource Management System Alert Level III for water supply [i.e., where demand exceeds existing supply, and still does] and from the 2015 designation by the California Department of Water Resources of the Los Osos Valley Groundwater Basin as a high priority basin due to its ‘condition of critical overdraft,’ there is insufficient water supply to serve even existing development in Los Osos without coastal resource harm [including where an over-drafted groundwater basin can adversely impact sensitive natural resources such as wetlands and marshes, coastal streams and adjacent riparian areas, and marine habitats, as well as adversely impact coastal priority uses such as agriculture and lower-cost visitor- serving development], let alone adding to it new water using development.

“In addition, much of Los Osos is considered environmentally sensitive habitat area [ESHA] by the LCP within which most development, including residential development, is prohibited.”

The underground water basin and Los Osos’ sole source of drinking water has long been under scrutiny basically because no one really seems sure if the basin can sustain the existing community, let alone increase demand with new construction.

Even a minute increase, like those that come with the permitting and building of “guest houses,” aka “secondary dwelling units,” or “granny units,” essentially small living spaces built at or added to an existing home, are being denied by the Commission.  

In a written response, County Planning Director Keith said, “While we continue to review and desire to further coordinate with Coastal Commission staff regarding your concerns, based on our preliminary review, the Department does not believe there is sufficient authority or justification to alter existing County practices regarding submittal and processing of land use permit applications in Los Osos at the staff level at this time.”

He defended the County’s actions. “Staff believes current Department practices are consistent with both the spirit and letter of the LCP and any new limited new development that is allowed in Los Osos will have a neutral to positive effect on the groundwater basin consistent with the current Estero Area Plan.”

The Commission also said the County’s community sewer project permits don’t allow for any new hookups either.

Community Getting Mixed Signals

Miggins said the community is getting mixed messages. “The Coastal Commission said very articulately ‘No more added water hookups.’”

So why then was a permit to build granted for the guesthouse on Highland Drive?

Hoestetter noted that other such projects, including one of her own, had to jump through the bureaucratic hoops, and yet, “One block down from me they’re able to build a new house.”

She noted that under current rules, it all comes down to bedrooms. “Bedrooms add people,” she said. “You could have one bathroom and 10 people living there, but if you add a bedroom, you have more people.”

Miggins mentioned another guesthouse that was approved in Baywood Park that did go through the “proper channels” and which they have no problems with.

Questions Lead to Lawsuit

Last February, Miggins tried to find out about the Highland project and hit a wall over and over again. An email response she got from the County, “Made no sense,” she said. 

She got no answers from planning or Supervisor Bruce Gibson, whom she said she once help get re-elected. 

Finally, she called the Coastal Commission and, “They didn’t know what I was talking about.” So she sent them photos and “Within 24 hours, they had contacted the County and the whole thing blew up.” 

Group Files Writ 

In November 2021, Miggins said, there was a Zoom call meeting with the citizen’s Good Governance group and Coastal Commission staff. “They said it was an illegal build,” Miggins said.

That eventually led to the group filing a “Writ of Mandamus” (Mandate) lawsuit against the County, essentially challenging the way the Highland project was handled.

A Writ of Mandate essentially asks the court to compel a government agency to follow the law. It doesn’t result in a big payout to the plaintiff, though attorney fees are normally awarded. 

For Hoestetter it boils down to, “Why does one neighbor have to follow the rules and another doesn’t? The County collects money from people when they know projects are going to be denied.”

The lawsuit claims the ministerial permit was improperly issued and the County should have noticed neighbors of the project site. There are other issues too, like the County not issuing a “Notice of Final Action” to the Coastal Commission upon issuance of a CDP.

Issue Bigger Than One Project

“This is not a witch hunt,” Miggins said. “We’re standing up for the right of the community to be involved. All we’re asking for is sanity; and I want the truth.”

Miggins feels their lawsuit, which was recently approved to go forward, could potentially set a precedent, which she feels is why the County isn’t going to settle. 

Estero Bay News sent email inquiries about the lawsuit to County Counsel Rita Neal and Planning Director Keith. Keith sent the following reply:

“My ability to comment on pending litigation is limited but I can affirm the County disputes the allegations in the lawsuit and also contends the lawsuit is time barred and moot. 

“The proposed guesthouse conformed with the development standards under the County’s certified Local Coastal Program and only required ministerial/over-the-counter approval, because it was a principal permitted use and was not located within the coastal appealable zone.

“The guesthouse has since been completed and final certificate of occupancy issued.” 

The County filed a “demurrer” motion in the lawsuit that essentially asked for a dismissal of the lawsuit claiming the facts don’t support it. But the judge denied the County’s motion in late November. 

In a post on the group’s Facebook Page, McFarland wrote, “Our suit alleges that we were denied due process by the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department. This lawsuit, we hope, will be great news for our Los Osos Water Basin in that if we prevail, potentially the County must stop finding work-arounds, such as allowing illegally permitted guesthouses to slip into Los Osos neighborhoods that rely on an over-drafted aquifer.”

Help Needed

Such a lawsuit can be costly and the Good Governance group would like the community to pitch in.

Hoestetter said, “We’re trying to make our community better. We feel like we’re fighting for the whole community.”

Each said this would all not be happening had the County followed the rules. “It’s not just this one project,” Hoestetter said, “Follow the rules.”

If readers would like to know more about the Los Osans for Good Governance, see their Facebook Page at: www.facebook.com/groups/lososans4goodgovernance

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