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Cambria citizens keep an eye out for development they believe is detrimental to their water supply 

Since 2016, Christine Heinrichs has watched for new development in Cambria, challenging any project that she believes might aggravate one of the town's scarcest resources.

"I just kind of watchdog those permits. The thing is, if no one appeals them at the local level, they just go through as approved," Heinrichs told New Times. "I just think it's crazy to keep on adding new users when, obviously, we don't have adequate water."

She believes that the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) and San Luis Obispo County are rubber stamping development that the California Coastal Commission has repeatedly stated Cambria doesn't have the water supply to serve. According to data from the SLO County Planning and Building Department, Heinrichs has appealed five projects to the SLO County Board of Supervisors since 2019. Supervisors heard three of those appeals on July 11, upheld the project approvals, and denied the appeals.

"The county's position is if Cambria says they have water and approves this, then they take their word for it," Heinrichs told New Times. "Even though they know perfectly well that Cambria doesn't have water. ... It's just absolutely crystal clear that they should not be doing this, and yet they continue to do it."

The developments under appeal on July 11 consisted of changes to existing single-family homes, projects which Heinrichs alleged were building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that would create new and increased water use from the respective properties. At the Coastal Commission's behest, SLO County amended its local coastal plan in April to explicitly outlaw the development of new ADUs in Cambria and Los Osos due to water supply issues.

click to enlarge APPEALED DEVELOPMENT Many of the development projects proposed in Cambria eventually get appealed to the California Coastal Commission due to water issues, which happened with a People's Self-Help Housing project in 2019. Although the affordable housing development depicted in this rendering was eventually approved, the project has yet to break ground. - FILE IMAGE COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • File Image Courtesy Of SLO County
  • APPEALED DEVELOPMENT Many of the development projects proposed in Cambria eventually get appealed to the California Coastal Commission due to water issues, which happened with a People's Self-Help Housing project in 2019. Although the affordable housing development depicted in this rendering was eventually approved, the project has yet to break ground.

County Project Manager Nicole Ellis told the board that staff didn't consider any of the projects to be ADUs and didn't believe that any of the projects would increase the water use of the respective properties. One would construct an attached garage, bedroom, and bathroom to an existing single-family home; one would renovate within the existing footprint of a single-family home to add a bedroom and bathroom; and one would add a detached guesthouse, garage, and deck to to a single-family home.

"The planning department hearing officer did not authorize an ADU or secondary dwelling unit," Ellis said. "Our department recognizes the severity of the water supply shortage in Cambria."

The planning department reached out to the CCSD, Ellis said, to get data on the average number of persons per household, the average number of bedrooms and bathrooms in Cambria's current housing stock, and the average supply of water those homes use. The projects, she said, fall within those averages, and so are not expected to increase water use from any of the homes.

Kathy Barnes, who applied to construct an attached garage, bedroom, and bathroom, said she and her husband have owned their property for 25 years, raised their children there, and were now caring for her ailing and increasingly immobile father—who is living in a small pass-through room between levels of the house. The new space, she told the board, would be used to accommodate current and future needs and make it easier for her father to access everything from a single floor of the home.

"We're not going to go to the bathroom anymore than we do now," Barnes said during the hearing. "I hope that you'll let us move forward with this, and I hope that this will be the end of the appeal."

Heinrichs responded by saying she was touched by the Barnes' story and sympathized with the needs of their family.

"Unfortunately, Cambria's water is finite," she told the board. "This is a discussion between agencies at this point."

Earlier in the hearing, she referred to a letter that the Coastal Commission's Central Coast District director sent to the county planning department in April 2022. Commission staff responded to New Times' request for comment by sending the very same letter, which staff said highlights the commission's view of development in Cambria.

"There is insufficient water supply to serve even existing development in Cambria without coastal resource harm, let alone new water development," Central Coast District Director Dan Carl wrote, adding that the commission had denied coastal development permits for each of the previous four single-family residential projects approved by the county that relied on the CCSD for water. "We respectfully request that you not file any more [coastal development permit] applications for such proposed development unless and until the water supply situation changes in Cambria and there is an adequate/sustainable water supply."

Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, whose district includes Cambria, pushed back against Heinrichs' use of the letter—which he said was written with regard to brand new development and "misrepresented as something applicable to this"—and her characterization of the projects that went before the board on July 11.

In the April 2022 letter, Carl specifies that the commission believes small home additions and renovations are unlikely to increase water use on a property, but that applicants should be required to demonstrate it with "actual evidence."

"The project before us is not an accessory dwelling unit, it's not an ADU, it's not even close to an ADU," Gibson said of the Barnes' project. There is "ample evidence that it does not intensify water use."

Heinrichs was not alone in appealing two of the projects, which Cambria resident Elizabeth Bettenhausen also appealed, stating some of the same concerns that Heinrichs had about the town's existing water supply. Cambria's water supply "is inadequate and unreliable," she told the board on July 11.

"The CSD holds that if you have a water meter, you have a right to the water. That is the basic premise on both permits before you. ... This is a big assertion," Bettenhausen said. "They make these decisions as if water will flow down like a river forever."

Past SLO County-approved developments in Cambria—such as an affordable housing project proposed by People's Self-Help Housing in 2019—have been appealed to the Coastal Commission by Heinrichs, other town residents, and even sitting commissioners. While People's Self-Help Housing's project eventually received the green light, the commission has upheld the appeals of most of those projects, specifically ones that required new water service from the CCSD.

Heinrichs told New Times that Cambria's situation is tenuous, with increased water extraction from Santa Rosa and San Simeon creeks carrying the potential to cause seawater intrusion, among other adverse impacts.

"Believe me, doing this does not make one popular in town," Heinrichs said, adding that the CCSD has a dozen ways it promises water to new developments. "It's paper water, and you know, it's just subterfuge for allowing development." Δ

Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at [email protected].


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