Voter Initiative Filed On Battery Plant

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 19, 2023

Morro Bay’s current zoning map shows the power plant as zoned ‘visitor-commercial serving.’

The growing opposition to a proposed giant lithium-ion battery plant in Morro Bay took a decidedly serious turn recently, when a group of citizens turned in a proposed voter initiative that would lock in the current zoning of the property and ostensibly prevent the City Council from approving the project without a vote of the people.

Power plant owner, Vistra Energy of Texas, proposes to build a 600-megawatt so-called, “Battery Energy Storage System” or BESS plant on about 22 acres of the power plant property.

The project involves three enormous 45-foot high buildings filled with tens of thousands of battery assemblies designed to store solar and wind energy when supply is high and demand low, and then sell it back into the power grid when supply drops off but demand is still high.

When completed it would be the largest such facility in the world and at 600 MW, it’d be twice the size of the current world’s largest BESS, a 300MW Vistra-owned BESS plant in Moss Landing. 

Vistra’s initial cost estimate was $490 million, of which the City of Morro Bay would receive about $490,000 a year in property taxes alone. The property taxes would also be shared with the local school district, SLO County and the State.

Project Review Well Underway

Vistra submitted an application for a Coastal Development Permit (and an accompanying zoning change) with the City Planning Department in 2021. 

The City hired a consulting firm, Rincon Consultants, to conduct an Environmental Impact Report or EIR, work that is well underway at this time with an expected release of a draft public copy sometime later this year.

The proponents of the initiative, which has yet to be given an official name or analysis by the City Attorney or begin to gather the over 800 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, have been meeting for months to get updates on Vistra’s project and to discuss strategy.

One of the organizers, Barry Branin, said they’ve been meeting Tuesdays at 10 a.m. at the Buttercup Bakery on Morro Bay Boulevard to discuss the BESS project and strategize their fight against it.

Opposition Got Organized

What’s emerged from all this organizing is a citizen’s opposition group, called “Citizens for Estero Bay Preservation.” That group has now drafted a voter initiative and delivered it to the City Council.

City Clerk, Dana Swanson, said, “A notice of intent to circulate a petition, the proposed ordinance and a request for the City Attorney to prepare a ballot title and summary were filed on May 1, 2023. The City has 15 calendar days to prepare and return the title and summary to the proponents of the measure.”

That’s when the public will get its first chance to see what’s being proposed with a legal ad in the newspaper. “The proponents will then publish the ‘Notice, Title & Summary’ in a newspaper of general circulation,” Swanson said, “and begin circulating petitions for signature. They will have 180 days from the date they received the ballot title and summary to collect signatures and file the petitions with the City Clerk’s office.”

She added that they would need to get signatures from 10% of the registered voters in Morro Bay. “Based on the most recent County Elections Report to the Secretary of State there are 8,141 registered voters so 815 valid signatures are needed” to qualify for the ballot.

From there the ball returns to the City’s court. “If they collect 815 or more valid signatures,” Swanson said, “the results are certified to the City Council and the Council can either call an election or adopt the ordinance as presented by the proponents. At the time the election is called, dates are established for filing of arguments for and against the initiative as well as the City Attorney’s impartial analysis.”

Initiatives Have Mixed Results

A local voter initiative is nothing new to Morro Bay, as voters have on several occasions in the past taken it upon themselves to either increase taxes or set land use policies through the ballot box.

The last local ballot measure, B-22, qualified for the November 2022 General Election. And while B-22 failed to pass, others in the past have, including Measures B and H that concerned a proposed shopping center on ranchlands east of Morro Bay Boulevard. Measure D from the early 1980s establishing a commercial/sport fishing zone along Embarcadero from Beach Street to Morro Rock and out to Morro Creek. Measure B-22 was a $10 per month ($120 a year) parcel tax that would have gone to support maintaining the City’s harbor facilities, raising about $680,000 a year. Measure B-22 failed to win support, mainly because it was asking property owners to tax themselves. 

This One’s Different

With the No BESS initiative, there’s a major difference in both approach and effect.

B-22 was a straight-up tax increase, which is always a tough sell, and this newest voter initiative is trying to work within the bureaucracy to prevent the BESS from being approved. It’s using the government’s own actions — in this case the 2021 approval of the General Plan update — against the project.

Indeed, the initiative doesn’t even mention Vistra or the BESS project, though its intent at stopping it is thinly veiled.

Branin said their focus is on the battery project but they didn’t want to go about this in a negative way. 

“If you say ‘No we don’t want something,’ it’s not pleasing.” So they decided to try the route taken with the Williams Bros., shopping center and go after it via the zoning ordinance.

When the City re-zoned the power plant to Visitor-Commercial Serving, the path became clear. “We saw that as an obvious way to solve the problem,” Branin said.

What Does It Do?

Under the heading, “Purposes, Effect, and Findings” the initiative says: “The purposes of this Initiative are to: (1) protect the natural beauty, sensitivity, and intrinsic value of Morro Bay’s waterfront and Embarcadero; (2) prevent the visual and physical degradation of Morro Bay’s natural environment; (3) promote the health and safety of Morro Bay’s residents, tourists, boaters, and wildlife habitat; (4) maintain present levels of coastal access to our California Historic Landmark, Morro Rock, as well as to the Harbor, and surrounding beaches; and (5) preserve Morro Bay as a world-renowned tourist destination.”

How it purports to work is to “amend Plan Morro Bay, the City of Morro Bay’s General Plan, adopted in May, 2021 to readopt and reaffirm the existing ‘Visitor-Serving Commercial’ [V-CS] and “Commercial/Recreational Fishing” [CRF] land use designations for certain parcels situated on both sides of Embarcadero Road from Beach Street to Atascadero Road, and Coleman Drive including Morro Rock parking lots, such that these parcels, even if subdivided, may only be amended or re-designated by a majority of Morro Bay voters at a regular or special election.”

So in plain English, that means the City’s current General Plan/Local Coastal Program that were finalized in 2021, would not be able to be changed as part of the BESS Project, but would have to go to a vote of the people, wherein a simple majority of voters could stop it dead in its tracks or approve it to move forward.

The initiative goes on to point out that the plant property was zoned V-CS in the 2021 update of the General Plan/LCP that was done under various State Laws and the California Coastal Act, which governs land uses within the “Coastal Zone,” of which a sizable chunk of Morro Bay sits, including the power plant property’s roughly 100 acres.

Branin pointed out that the initiative mostly covers the power plant, the Morro Dunes RV Park and Lila Keiser Park on that side of the Embarcadero (from Beach Street north) and all of the City lease sites on the bay side. 

“We didn’t even mention the BESS,” Branin explained. “We want to preserve the Visitor-Commercial Serving zoning that was already approved by the Coastal Commission.”

Existing Laws Being Used

The initiative would appear to not create any new laws, but simply amend what’s already on the books — using the law against to fight the project. 

“The Coastal Act,” the initiative reads, “requires the City to prioritize uses that serve important needs for the community and visitors, such as recreation, coastal access, open space, and visitor-serving and coastal-dependent uses. Nearly all of Morro Bay is in the coastal zone. Coastal priority uses range from visitor-serving recreation and services to coastal dependent businesses such as aquaculture and commercial fishing.”

The General Plan has a pretty specific definition of V-CS zoning: “’Visitor serving facility’ means those stores, shops, businesses, recreational facilities [both public and private], parks and natural preserves which are regularly utilized by the traveling public.”

The City’s V-CS zoning allows for a variety of businesses to be established including, “restaurants, coffee shops, specialty retail boutiques, travel agents, retail establishments selling boat and marine supplies, souvenirs, antiques, art galleries and studios, museums, hotels and motels, bars and taverns, boat rentals, fishing supplies, service stations, parking lots, and parks and open space,” according to the Initiative. A giant battery plant doesn’t fit that list.

Measure D In Play

The Initiative ropes in Measure D, a local voter initiative from the early 1980s that designated the waterfront area from Beach Street to Target Rock as reserved for commercial fishing and “noncommercial recreational fishing activities, or if clearly incidental thereto.”

The initiative goes on to say that the V-CS and Measure D zoning areas “are critical to maintaining Morro Bay’s economic vitality, quality of life, status as a tourist destination, recreational resources, and natural environment.”

It also claims that any time the V-CS and commercial fishing zoning is changed, “to allow industrial or other non-commercial uses [it] will have a deleterious impact on Morro Bay’s citizens, its economy, environment, reputation, and overall qualify life.”

Given those arguments, the initiative is necessary “to ensure that future land uses that are incompatible with, or that would adversely impact, existing and future Visitor-Serving Commercial and Commercial/Recreational Fishing uses are not permitted to operate on those parcels situated on both sides of Embarcadero Road from Beach Street to Atascadero Road, and Coleman Drive including Morro Rock parking lots, unless a majority of Morro Bay voters approve of such other uses.”

City Will Need Permission

The Initiative essentially adds language to the General Plan/LCP that would require the City to ask voters whether any V-CS zoned property, of which there is just 145 acres within Morro Bay, can be changed. This would apply even if the land was subdivided. 

It essentially locks in whatever V-CS and fishing zoning is in place when the measure is approved.

But that’s not to say it denies off hand any potential zoning changes; it does rather, require voters decide the issue.

It does the same for the commercial and sport fishing zone (delineated by Measure D).

The proponents will have a tough road ahead convincing the voters that they don’t need this battery project and the inherent fire safety concerns that come with these big battery plants. Branin points to Moss Landing, where Vistra has a 300MW BESS and PG&E has a 100MW battery plant. 

Both have had issues with PG&E’s plant actually catching fire in a blaze that sent a toxic cloud of hot gases towards nearby Watsonville, and Castroville and closed a school in Moss Landing. 

“Can you imagine if you were at Morro Rock when this thing caught fire,” Branin said, “There would be no escape route. You’d have to drive right through the smoke to get away. And what would happen with the high school?”

Morro Bay High is just a few hundred yards from where the BESS is being sited. Its student and staff population is about 1,000.

Where Does The BESS Stand Now?

According to Morro Bay’s Community Development Director, Scot Graham, the City brought in Rincon Consultants last year to do the EIR for the project and that work is ongoing.

When can we expect to see something? “I believe we have completed all of the background environmental reports,” Graham said, “and Rincon is in the process of preparing administrative draft sections of the EIR for our review.”

So far the EIR work has cost about $180,000, which Vistra is paying through a reimbursement agreement that was signed before the City took on the project review.

Graham said the “Reimbursement agreement covers the cost of Rincon, our City Attorney’s and staff cost on the project; also covers the cost of the master plan. City is contracted directly with Rincon for the environmental work and for the master plan.”

How close is the City watching the EIR work? Graham said, “We will conduct an internal review of the admin draft. Once Rincon addresses all staff comments, the Draft EIR will be ready for release for public review. We are required to respond to all comments received on the draft EIR in the Final EIR.”

City Works on Master Plan

The power plant master plan would cover the rest of the power plant property, essentially the powerhouse, office and stacks, but not the BESS project area, and seeks to guide what will happen in the future. 

Vistra and the City have an agreement that the company will remove the trio of 450-foot tall smokestacks and the 165-foot tall powerhouse building by 2028 or pay the City $3 million. And therein lies the biggest rub of all. 

Branin explained that the City is in kind of a tough spot as it signed a memorandum of understanding with Vistra over the power plant’s future. 

The City is supposed to help Vistra get its BESS Project through, but will apparently have to do so through lagging support amongst the citizenry.

And at the last City Council Election the three winning candidates all said they were leery about the BESS Project, though none came right flat out in opposition to it.

Branin, who worked on Mayor Carla Wixom’s winning campaign, is confident the City Council will support the will of the people.

If readers want to learn more about the anti-BESS group, Citizens for Estero Bay Coastal Preservation, you can check out their website site, at:

You May Also Like…

Election Season Now Open

Election Season Now Open

Just as deer-hunting season opens and closes on specific dates and certain times, it’s officially election season for...