Coastal Commission Coming to Morro Bay

Written by Sullivan

June 6, 2024

California Coastal Investments, LLC is proposing to re-develop the lease sites at 801 Embarcadero currently the home of Associated Pacific Contructors, two small vacation rentals and a vacant lease site. The Coastal Commission will vote on a Coastal Development Permit at the commission’s June 13 meeting at the Inn at Morro Bay. Photo courtesy City of Morro Bay

The California Coastal Commission will make a rare visit to the North Coast this month, as the statewide agency will take over the Inn at Morro Bay Wednesday-Friday, June 12-14, with at least three items of local interest to Estero Bay News readers on the agenda.

Local issues include — potential approval of a new motel project on the Embarcadero; a Coastal Development Permit for a dedicated bike/pedestrian path linking Morro Bay and Cayucos; and approval of a planning document for Los Osos that could lead to the lifting of the town’s building moratorium.

Motel Project

On tap at Thursday’s meeting is a permit application by the owner of the Associated Pacific Constructors to redevelop his lease site, plus two adjacent leases that have vacation rentals on one and the other is vacant.

California Coastal Investments, LLC is the applicant for the redevelopment, located at 801 Embarcadero, across the street from La Katrina Mexican Restaurant. The proposal is to demolish the Associated Pacific office and shop building, and the two vacation rentals and build anew.

“The Applicant,” reads the Commission staff report, “proposes to demolish an existing, mostly vacant 4,677-square foot 2-story building and construct a new, 2-story 5,206-square foot building comprised of a ground-floor restaurant/brewery and coffee shop, as well as a seven-unit standard-operating hotel on the second floor. 

“In addition, the project proposes a series of public access improvements including a new 15-foot-wide lateral segment of the Harborwalk public access walkway along the building’s frontage with Morro Bay, a second-floor public viewing deck, new floating dock with two side-tie public boat slips, and creation of a public plaza.”

The Morro Bay City Council unanimously approved the project. It was presented to them by the Harbor Department as redevelopment of under-performing lease sites, and a good investment in the waterfront on the southern end of the business district. No other developments are possible between the new motel and Tidelands Park and the public launch ramp.

The project includes a significant addition to the Harborwalk and must price 25% of the rooms “at or below the low-cost threshold.”

Currently, that low-cost price is tied into the average cost for a room night in town as calculated among all the motels, or around $140 a night (plus bed taxes of 14%). Twenty-five percent of seven rooms would be 1.75 units, or two if one rounds up. It’s all according to plan.

“The proposed number of low-cost rooms,” the report said, “in conjunction with these other public access benefits, is consistent with the Commission’s overarching goals and intent in administering the Coastal Act’s public access and recreation policies, namely, ensuring that proposed visitor-accommodation facilities in the coastal zone [and in particular on locations such as this one, on former State tidelands, immediately fronting the Morro Bay estuary, and adjacent to the City’s visitor-serving commercial waterfront] include lower-cost rooms and other low-/no-cost visitor accommodating and public access amenities onsite. 

“Doing so provides for a range of affordability options, including lower-cost hotel units, and will result in an exciting opportunity to activate this important coastal locale. The Applicant’s proposal thus provides a low-cost option for families to access Morro Bay’s waterfront amenities.”

This push for low-cost accommodations started with another re-development a couple of doors down from this one — the Estero Inn. When that project was approved there was a choice whether to offer the low-cost rooms or pay an in-lieu fee, which is what the developer did in that case. It was the first time a Morro Bay project was forced to include the low-cost rooms.

On the other hand, when Rose’s Landing converted its upstairs restaurant into motel rooms, creating the Inn at Rose’s Landing, they chose to keep two of the rooms priced at the low-cost rate. Potential guests must ask for the discounted rooms but anyone is able to book them if available.

Los Osos Lifting

The Commission is also slated to hear the County’s proposal to finalize the Los Osos Community Plan, which includes findings that would ease restrictions on growth the Commission has been enforcing for several years, based on the water supply.

Back in the early 1990s, the County declared a Level III water emergency, meaning the town was withdrawing more groundwater than could be replenished by rainfall or septic tanks. The basin was in danger of seawater intrusion, a fear that’s come to be realized.

The water issue was in addition to the moratorium the Regional Water Quality Control Board placed on the town in 1988, prohibiting any more septic systems to be installed within a “prohibition zone.” 

The water board wanted the County to build a community sewer system, which it eventually did and completed in 2016 in a massive construction project that lasted over 2 years.

A treatment plant was built on ag lands behind the local cemetery and the County’s project includes significant reuse of the wastewater. Much of that wastewater is being injected back into the aquifer via a giant leach field above Broderson Avenue. 

Also, the County has made some of the water available for use by agriculture and is now working on a project to bring a water line to Los Osos Middle School for irrigation at the school.

A lot of other, peripheral things have happened in the recent past including a court settlement that brought the three water purveyors and the County together (as the Los Osos Basin Management Committee) to write and implement a basin management plan. Several of the projects within that plan are being pursued now and involve a new well located eastward away from the Coast, where seawater has intruded into the main aquifer.

Also, the Community Services District is working on potentially building a pipeline over to Hwy 1 and tying into the Chorro Valley Pipeline, which delivers State Water Project potable water to Morro Bay. 

The idea is to bring 200-acre feet a year into Los Osos to offset some of the groundwater pumping during dry years, though the exact amount to be imported is one of many things to be decided as the project evolves. SLO County has thousands of acre-feet a year of state water available but untapped.

But while the sewer project solved the boggle with the water board, the focus shifted to the over-drafted water basin and the limits placed on it by the County all those years ago. 

Most recently, the County approved a handful of projects that would replace existing homes, or allow additions.

A citizen’s group has appealed those approvals to the Commission. The Commission has been rejecting the County’s approvals until it completes the Community Plan and solves the questions over water supply.

Indeed, the Commission staff has even issued a letter to the County all but ordering it to stop approving any permits that might increase the demand on the water supply, something the County Planning Department vehemently opposed. It also discounts “Will Serve” letters form the water purveyors, as not meeting their criteria for protecting the basin.

This disagreement covers Cambria too, which faces similar questions over the adequacy of its groundwater supplies.

But the water issue would appear to be working itself out.

“In terms of water supply,” the Commission report said, “the groundwater basin has been under court adjudication for about a decade and has been managed by the Los Osos Basin Management Committee [BMC], an entity created to comprehensively manage and monitor water resources to stop overdraft and seawater intrusion and meet water quality requirements. The BMC has shown that the community has used less water for several years now than the basin’s calculated sustainable/safe yield, or the amount of water the BMC has determined can be used while both meeting applicable drinking water standards and protecting basin health.”

Recent pumping data is apparently convincing proof. “The latest numbers from the BMC’s 2023 report,” the Commission report said, “show the basin is trending positively, and only 69% of its sustainable/safe yield is being used. Moreover, there aren’t any documented problems with community water extractions having any specific adverse impacts on Los Osos aquatic resources, such as wetlands, streams, or Morro Bay itself.”

With that data to back it up, “the Commission staff no longer believes the basin is in overdraft, and thus can be found to be a sustainable supply for Coastal Act purposes.”

They apparently realize what a revelation this is for a town that’s been bottled up for decades. “Staff does not make this determination lightly, including as it understands the gravity of what it means: that a community that for a generation was essentially under a building moratorium due to public service inadequacies is now offered a path to developing once again.”

The document sets a 1% annual growth rate, which is in line with the County’s slow-growth targets and that can be sustainable.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Indeed, the citizens’ group The Sustainability Group, which has been challenging the County’s permits, submitted over-50 pages of comments that runs down the water basin situation and calls for the Community Plan to be rejected.

“The mission and first priority of the Los Osos Sustainability Group (LOSG),” their report to the Commission reads, “is the sustainability of the Los Osos Groundwater Basin. The Basin’s survival remains threatened by 50 years of overdraft and seawater intrusion, climate change, and emerging threats such as PFAS contamination. These threats and others have not yet been adequately assessed or addressed, putting the Basin’s survival in jeopardy.”

They argue that no matter what data is used, it is inadequate. “There is currently no substantial evidence, let alone ‘conclusive evidence,’ that the Los Osos Basin is sustainable for the current population,” the Sustainability Group’s report said. They go on to refute the claim by the County that the basin is no longer being over drafted.

“Several facts refute this: 1) According to AMRs, Zone E intrusion poses ‘a significant threat to Basin sustainability;’ 2) data show seawater intrusion is advancing in Zone E; and 3) the BMC doesn’t have enough Zone E monitoring wells to know where the front is or its rate and movement, e.g., whether it is threatening major supply wells in the commercial area. The BMC also can’t provide conclusive evidence that strategies to stop and reverse seawater intrusion in Zone E have worked or will work, e.g., Broderson leach field discharge and moving wells inland.”

They call for new monitoring wells to be drilled to better understand what’s going on with the deep, lower part of the aquifer, where the drinking water is being pulled. They said it would only cost $3 million, which compared to a $200 million sewer project is not very expensive.

On the other hand, local developer Jeff Edwards also chimed in on the matter, taking the opposite position as the Sustainability Group. He pointed out that water usage has steadily dropped. 

“Peak urban demand supplied by purveyors dropped from 2560 AF in 1988 to 1016 AF in 2022,” he said, “a reduction of more than 60%.”

He added that per capita water demand from 1988 to 2022 dropped from 159 gallons a day (per person) to 63 gallons a day; and that the population of 14,000 hasn’t grown since 1990, after the moratorium went into effect. He noted that the “projected average residential growth rate for the next 30 years is 0.5%;” “with a build-out population of approximately 17,500 people by 2060, which averages about 35 new dwelling units per year.”

The Commission’s vote likely wouldn’t be the final say in this saga, nor would it mean a rush to the planning department to pull permits, as the town still sits within the Coastal Zone and any project approvals could be appealed to the Coastal Commission.

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