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Pipe dreamer

A candid conversation with Bruce Buel, the man behind the Los Osos sewer project


Bruce Buel squinted through thick spectacles at oncoming traffic as his SUV rattled through Los Osos’ busiest intersection, his guileless comment suggesting he might believe everyone shares his particularly ambitious vision of creation.

"What I really like to do is build communities," Buel said.

?As general manager of the Los Osos Community Services District (LOCS) since November 1999, Buel is the guy charged with completing a most daunting public works project, a sewer plant construction and retrofit of each and every household in Baywood Park-Los Osos. That’s 4,200 household hookups by 2008, at a total projected cost of $84.6 million, before hired gun Buel can ride off into his sunset, paycheck secure in his saddlebags.

Such has never been done in the state of California.

But as he elaborated, it was apparent that Buel’s biggest professional headaches have not evolved from engineering complexities. He’s got problems of a different ilk: a persistently passionate populace. If human emotion and controversy were solid waste, this little dune-side village would be chin-deep.

The conflict is not new. Disagreement among residents about nearly every aspect of the project–from the actual need for a sewer at all, to the placement of the sprawling sewer treatment plant–has been an integral part of the community fabric for decades. Litigation has divided residents, recall elections and other disputes have polarized opinions, unlawful conflicts of interest have been alleged. Grand juries have investigated, motivated by dissident sewer opponents. Differing, visceral beliefs divide neighborhoods to a level not unlike those intrinsic to the Gulf War II debate.

But never has feeling run so deep, so bitter, as now, on the veritable eve of the sewer project’s construction.

In October, the LOCS board of directors approved an $18 million sale of tax-exempt municipal bonds to finance the initial portion of the project’s overall cost. With revenues derived from that bond sale, the district now has started final design of the wastewater project with engineering firm Montgomery Watson Harza of San Francisco. Design completion is slated for next spring.

That bond sale authorization occurred mere days before local voters were to decide the new slate of board members controlling the LOCSD, an election featuring 10 candidates for three seats, each individual harboring different views of the sewer project’s future.

Pro-sewer candidates either won or were reelected to all three seats, against a badly divisive gaggle of opponents.

For Buel, the bond sale okay and the election’s outcome were hard-won plateaus, which he savors: "My great joy in life is to help communities define themselves," he said, unwinding his 6-foot-5 frame from behind the wheel of his vehicle and ambling toward the district’s modest headquarters, shoulders slightly slumped. "I like to build the infrastructure and facilities communities need and want, to help them make themselves what they want to be."

It’s not so much that Buel is implementing a sewer system that has earned him the enmity of some in eclectic Los Osos and its integrated neighbor, Baywood. Dissent centers on where he plans to build the treatment plant–right square in the middle of town, adjacent to a library, a community center, and residences, in a sprawling, tranquil, wooded area long treasured by inhabitants and visitors alike.

It’s called the "Tri-W" site.

"I am just passionate that this is the worst possible outcome to a 30-year-long nightmare," said lifelong resident Julie Tacker.

Tacker’s father settled in Los Osos in the 1950s, building a unique country home complete with windmill tower, where she and her family now reside. She and others who do not oppose the sewer system in principal have lobbied ceaselessly for a different location for the treatment plant, and as a reasonable alternative to current plans, she suggests "anywhere out of town. On the outskirts of town, there will be much less impact [on people]."

"We feel this location constitutes a menace to the health and welfare of the whole community," said colleague Toby "Buffalo" Sacher. "It’s a gargantuan problem. The plant will be only a few hundred yards from the bay. Plus, we’re going to produce toxic sludge that has to be loaded onto trucks, with spores blowing everywhere."

There are several better sites for the treatment plant, Tacker and her fellow relocation advocates maintain.

* * *

One can be forgiven for dozing off as the long-festering Los Osos sewer issue oozes toward fruition. It’s been bubbling around the consciousness of county residents since at least 1988, when state water officials decided that water aquifers in the Los Osos underground were being polluted, creating a threat to fresh water pumped from wells, Los Osos’ only water supply.

The culprit identified by the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) was nitrates, from leakage of saturated septic systems and leach fields of Los Osos and Baywood residences.

The board’s finding was met with disdain by residents, many of whom viewed the issue simply as a growth versus no-growth one, the sewer a device of development. Despite the contention of some that the problem was overstated, and the purported excess of nitrates in the aquifer a straw dog of sewer proponents, an order was directed by RWQCB to the community to solve the problem or face daily fines of $10,000. A building moratorium was imposed, a so-called "prohibition" zone established, a minor hurdle easily skirted over ensuing years by wannabe residents possessing adequate financial resources.

Because Los Osos and Baywood are in an unincorporated area, San Luis Obispo County officials began a study of the problem and soon proposed to build a sewer system of its own to deal with the problem. That would have spread the cost of the development over the entire county. But the people of Los Osos could not agree, and decided to form the community services district and do the job themselves.

On reflection, they shot themselves in the foot with a grenade launcher, because today almost everyone would like to have what the county would have built.

So as it turned out, the state water board’s aquifer cleanup order eventually prompted formation of the community services district, and members began the arduous task of not only making a workable plan to meet RWQCB’s requirements, but selling it conceptually to skeptical residents satisfied with the status quo.

LOCSD board member Frank Freiler recently told the Los Angeles Times that he has worked for years on proposals to allow continued use of the present septic system.

In the 1980s, said Freiler, "We came up with a recommendation to do little on-site wastewater treatment systems on each house."

For years as those various plans were developed and refined, state water regulators delayed action on their threat of sanctions against the community. Lack of concurrence among residents, however, served to deep-six plan after plan. But in 1998, with bureaucratic patience running thin, the board narrowed its various alternatives and submitted its plan for an innovative ponding system located away from the town’s center, a facility to treat sewage adequately for disposal.

For all but the most vociferous sewer opponents, the war was winding down.

But the RWQCB had another surprise waiting: the ponding system was judged to be too unpredictable, that little proof existed to back up the theory supporting the system’s potential effectiveness. Los Osos would have to come up with another idea, and fast.

Gordon Hensley, a member of the LOCSD board, wrote in an e-mail recently to Susan Jordan of the League for Coastal Protection that the state’s rejection of the pond plan was "a turn of events that was very difficult for the LOCSD and the entire community."

Hensley told Jordan the pond system’s scrubbing "resulted in some very aggressive strategies to win against [the state water board] by some of our citizens."

That was, perhaps, an understatement of significant proportion. The result of the state decision was to renew hostilities among community members with an accelerated fury. Amid a flurry of legal challenges at numerous governmental levels, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney and the county grand jury reviewed accusations of corruption among LOCSD board members, neither body finding evidence to support prosecution. A recall effort fell short of the required number of signatures. An election reaffirmed local voters’ desire to comply with the sewer construction order of the state.

Drafting of a new plan commenced. The objective: design a sewer system to collect, treat, and dispose of wastewater from the equivalent of 18,428 people, the "build-out" population expected by 2020, according to LOCSD’s project report.

With a plan now before the community, for better or worse, will the healing begin?

Board member Hensley opined, "The majority of our community is very tired of the continued debate, delays, and legal challenges."

Of the seven sewer opponents on the ballot, Tacker polled the most votes. She said she voted for formation of the district in 1998, along with 87 percent of eligible voters, because planners promised to be "innovative" about proposed solutions.

That innovation has not been applied to the critical site selection for the sewage treatment plant, she said.

Project planners have insisted that a "project objective" of the primary sewage facility location is establishment of a park in conjunction with other plant features.

"If we want a park in the middle of town, then as a community, we will choose to put a park in the middle of town," said Tacker recently. "If we wanted a sewer plant in the middle of town, we would have chosen that. Five members of one board made this [Tri-W site] decision accompanied by huge outcry from residents, with so many issues unresolved. This site was not mentioned" by sewer proponents during the board campaign, she added.

Tom Salmon, a resident and professional engineer who is critical of numerous technical aspects of the project, worries most about the impact of household assessment fees that might drive fixed-income residents from their twilight-years nest.

"One thing we don’t want is to take our seasoned citizens and force them to make a decision to move out because of this project," he said recently.

Board chairwoman Rosemary Bowker said recently it is "too late" to change sites.

"Opponents contend that we could save money by moving the site out of town … and have proposed the use of the Andre property located under transmission lines east of Los Osos cemetery. The cost of transporting untreated wastewater would exceed any cost savings," she wrote in a recent letter to local newspapers.

There are financial issues at stake, too.

According to LOCSD documents, there will be a pair of one-time costs for all households: a $400 fee to decommission present septic systems, and a connection fee of at least $1,000 and as high as $4,093. Ongoing costs will total $108 monthly. This, it is hoped by proponents, will fully amortize the project.

During a nostalgic stroll through the Tri-W site, Tacker and Sacher claimed the current community services district board and its employees have used deceptive practices to convince the Los Osos public that the proper things are being done.

As they walked, a white SUV drove past, and Tacker and Sacher waved to its driver, Bruce Buel.

* * *

"One of the reasons I was hired was that the board wanted someone who had managed a community services district before, had experience with creating a new government–an individual who has worked on large projects and is comfortable with the dynamics of developing a large project," Buel said as he bit into a bite of potato salad.

That description, added Buel, fit him nicely. He had considerable experience in managing an advanced integrated wastewater pond system, which was the system then envisioned by the LOCSD board.

"My expectation coming in was that the board already had decided what it wanted to build, and that the community was very supportive, and that my fundamental job in that setting would be to move the project forward," he said.

He was oh so wrong.

Buel was lunching in the boardroom of the LOCSD as he reflected on his 41 months as the district’s general manager, during which time he has become a lightning rod for extraordinary citizen rage. Those are the "dynamics" to which he referred.

"My biggest surprise on taking the job was that the regulatory agency didn’t think the ponding system was a very good idea," he said. But he quickly came to the conclusion that the plan did, indeed, have some "significant problems." That inexorably changed the role that Buel was to play in the development of Los Osos’ ambitious public works project.

"The greater the controversy, the divergence, the separation in approach, the more a manager becomes a facilitator, and a fulcrum to weigh alternate values. So I had to step out of my place as a technician and become a moderator," said Buel.

Barely a month into his tenure, state regulators told the Los Osos board their ponding plan would not be permitted.

"I was frankly surprised, a little unhappy, that the [experimental ponding treatment] concept hadn’t been developed as far as it should have been," said Buel.

The shift in direction was cataclysmic to community cohesion.

At that time, said Buel, support for the whole project as proposed was almost universal. That support dissolved, almost overnight, and the stage was set for war, even though Buel said "community values" were a prime consideration for any plan to be adopted.

The board studied six different plans, holding public meeting after public meeting on the issue. When the current plan eventually shook to the top of the pile, in March 2001, general public agreement, though tentative, seemed to be within reach–until the site in the middle of town was picked.

Escrow closed on the site last month, costing the district $3 million.

A local Realtor who opposes the sewer plant location conducted a limited poll earlier this month that seemed to show that a majority of residents do not like the in-town location for the sewer plant.

Buel said he would characterize the interest in the plant by residents as "phenomenal, although there is a group of opponents who have beaten their drum as loud as they can." But he perceives more backing for the project than opposition.

"All my indications are that the community strongly supports what the board is doing," he said.

He said he is discouraged because "we have tried so hard to get grant funds, and did succeed in getting $3 million in grants, but the delays and legal expenses of litigation have cost us at least that much. I want to help the community save money, and I don’t believe these lawsuits are adding anything to the value of this project."

Opponents have filed four lawsuits so far, and Buel thinks there may be more: "As long as there is someone willing to pay, it’s always a possibility."

Buel also said he thinks there is still room for dissent. "I feel fortunate to be working in a field where you get so much pubic feedback."

That attitude suits Tacker and her small squadron of fighters, who vow the battle is far from over and the "feedback" is just getting started.

Gazing over a rare, wild stretch of undeveloped acreage, brimming with wildlife and separated from the Pacific Ocean only by an undulating series of picturesque sand dunes, Tacker said the topic of dissent is quite simple:

"This is the worst place in the world to build a sewer plant." Æ

News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at

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