Commission Letter’s Not a de Facto Moratorium

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.

May 20, 2022

The Coastal Commission has laid down the law with regards to new growth in Los Osos and Cambria, discouraging the County and local services districts from processing any permits that would exacerbate the towns’ water supply issues.

And while it appears on the surface that the State agency is setting down what is effectively a new building moratorium, its effects are not likely to change anything.

In a letter dated April 19 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).

“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.”

Back in the mid-1990s, County Engineering studied the groundwater situation in Los Osos and concluded that it was in “Severity Level III” with regards to over drafting, i.e. pumping out more water than rainfall can replenish. Groundwater is the sole source of drinking water for Los Osos. 

Since then, the County has built the community sewer system, which was supposed to recycle the wastewater and firm up the overall water supply, though it did take another 20 years or so to accomplish.

But even that expensive improvement didn’t mean a change in the water supply’s status, as the County’s various planning documents still have the Level III designation and provisions within the CDP for the sewer project were cited by Carl as well.

“The County’s wastewater treatment plant,” Carl said, “is prohibited from providing wastewater service to anything but existing development [and not to new development on existing lots], unless and until the Estero Area Plan is amended to ‘identify appropriate and sustainable build out limits, and any appropriate mechanisms to stay within such limits, based on conclusive evidence indicating that adequate water is available to support development of such properties without adverse impacts to ground and surface waters, including wetlands and all related habitats.’”

The Commission has found that the CDP’s prohibition on new wastewater service, Carl said, “does not only apply to new development on completely vacant parcels, but also to projects that include significant intensifications of use and significant expansions on already-developed properties.”

That would also presumably apply to property owners who paid into the sewer project’s assessment district with the understanding that sewer service would eventually be provided, allowing them to build.

SLO County has over the past year or so approved projects that the Commission feels fall within these parameters, and every one of them has been appealed and those appeals upheld. 

Also, a group of citizen activists, the Los Osos Sustainability Group (see: thelosg.com) has been opposing projects at the County level and then appealing them to the Coastal Commission, as well. 

The LOSG’s website describes the group as: “A group of homeowners in Los Osos who are dedicated to supporting and pursuing sustainability goals and initiatives for the community.”

Its mission is: “To help protect the resources within the Los Osos community and present guidelines and recommendations for the use of those resources in a sustainable manner. To advocate for policies and decision making that ensures the long-term sustainability of the Los Osos Groundwater Basin, the sole source of water for the Los Osos Community, area farms, and groundwater dependent environmentally sensitive habitat.”

The Commission’s cases have ranged from new homes to secondary unit projects. “In short,” Carl’s letter said, “the County is prohibited by the CDP from providing wastewater services to such development, including intensifications of use, and if the County were to provide such services, the County would be in violation of that CDP and subject to potential Commission enforcement action.”

And the letter also extended that principle to even accepting applications, making a number of observations and suggestions.

“First,” Carl said, “please do not accept any CDP applications for filing that cannot demonstrate that they have legal access to both a sustainable water source and wastewater treatment services. 

“To be clear, such applications should not be accepted for review unless and until such water and wastewater is available for use, as availability of these public services reflects a fundamental prerequisite for considering proposed development and must be considered at the filing stage.”

The letter also dismisses the issuance of “will serve” letters by water and sewer providers. “We do not believe that a will serve from a local water purveyor satisfies LCP and CDP requirements, including as the LCP finding that is required on this point is not for water purveyors to make, rather it is the County’s independent responsibility. 

“To this point, recent Commission’s adopted findings on this issue state: ‘The County, as the initial CDP decision-making body for CDP applications that include new water use in Cambria [same as Los Osos], needs to consider these perhaps inconvenient facts, and stop approving or even considering such projects unless and until measurable steps are taken that improve water supply issues in Cambria [same as Los Osos]. 

“The County should not be even accepting applications for development in Cambria [same as Los Osos] that cannot show evidence of an adequate water supply.”

In a written response, the 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 defends 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.”

That Estero Area Plan, which the County has been working on for nearly 30 years, was approved last year and is currently being reviewed by the Coastal Commission staff. 

The Plan will be incorporated into the County’s Local Coastal Program (LCP) and eventually become part of he General Plan. Until that process is finally finished, the town’s water situation will not have changed, so far as the Commission is concerned.

Keith also refutes the Commission’s claim that the sewer project’s permit prohibits all new development.

“As to Special Condition 6 of the LOWRF’s coastal development permit,” Keith wrote, “the County’s understanding that it limits wastewater service to undeveloped properties, but does not prohibit development on already developed properties, such as residential additions, is consistent with the language of the condition and subsequent guidance provided to the County by Coastal Commission staff as recently as 2020.”

Estero Bay News asked Keith if the Commission’s letter sets down a de facto building moratorium based on water supply (Los Osos was under a moratorium against new septic systems handed down by the Regional Water Quality Control Board in 1988)? 

“The only moratoriums in Los Osos,” Keith said, “are the water board moratorium for septic discharges in the prohibition zone and the Coastal Commission moratorium by way of a condition of approval of the LOWRF that prohibits undeveloped properties from connecting to sewer system until a community plan update is certified.”

Keith tells Carl that the County will not change anything it’s doing at this time but they will start giving their customers a heads up. “While the Department doesn’t intend to make any interim changes to application submittal and processing at this time, we will try to provide clear eyed warnings to Department customers regarding Coastal Commission staff concerns and will encourage applicants to provide more information regarding water use along the lines requested,” he said.

So the County’s position is that it doesn’t grant CDPs to projects that would increase the load on the sewer system or increase water usage anyway, which makes the Commission’s concerns seem to be a moot point.

But did the Commission’s letter dismiss “will serve” letter granted to a property owner? Los Osos Community Services District General Manager Ron Munds echoed the County’s position that it doesn’t hand out will serve letters to “new” developments.

Munds said he was “A little shocked at their position. If an existing customer is doing a remodeling job and they don’t need an additional water meter or an upgrade to their meter we issue ‘Continue to Serve’ letters. We’ve been doing that since 2017.”

He noted that they adhere to the sewer projects requirements on no new hookups but, “their letter takes it a step further. It’s a de facto moratorium.”

He added that he intends to take the issue to the LOCSD Board at a future date and the Basin Management Committee, a group of water purveyors plus the County, will be discussing it too. The Basin Management Committee was charged under a court order, to first write a plan to better manage the groundwater basin, and then to implement new infrastructure — wells, storage tanks etc. — being called for to battle seawater intrusion into the basin caused by over pumping.

He criticized the Commission for not giving them credit for what they’ve already accomplished under the management plan, nor did they speak with the CSD about the water situation before writing the letter. 

“They gave no data or explanations,” at how they reached their conclusions Munds said. He noted that the same letter was sent to the Cambria CSD but, “Our basins are nothing alike.”

Indeed, in Cambria the CSD pumps wells located adjacent to Santa Rosa Creek, and the Commission claims that the extractions are destroying the wildlife habitat value of the creek.

Because the CSD’s had no input nor were they even consulted by the Commission, it brings up potential ethical questions and questions over due process, Munds said.

The Commission also didn’t take into account water retrofit programs designed to offset new water usage. He added that if the County approves a development project, CSDs are obligated by law to provide water.

He also disagrees that remodel jobs by existing customers, even if they add a bathroom, necessarily increase water use in and of themselves.

As an example, if a family of four living in a two-bedroom house adds a new master bedroom and bath, it doesn’t automatically translate into increased water usage, if there are still only four people in the house. 

Whereas, if that family of four added a new baby, that would add to the water use, but without adding new bathrooms.

“This blanket action,” Munds said, “penalizes people who are not increasing water use.”

In closing, Keith’s letter to Carl said, “Please know we share the common goal of continuing to increase the sustainability of Los Osos and any future development to the long-term benefit of County residents, visitors, and important coastal resources.”

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