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Coastal Commission eases path to lifting Los Osos' building freeze 

Los Osos leaped closer to a future without the building moratorium that's gripped the coastal community for a generation.

The California Coastal Commission approved a modified version of the new Los Osos Community Plan, effectively smoothing the way for San Luis Obispo County to amend the local coastal plan governing development in the unincorporated area since the 1970s.

click to enlarge CHANGE IN PLANS While Los Osos worked to fix its wastewater problems with the Los Osos Water Recycling Facility, the community plan also needs to address the issues of water supply and environmental constraints to add more development. - FILE PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • File Photo By Dylan Honea-Baumann
  • CHANGE IN PLANS While Los Osos worked to fix its wastewater problems with the Los Osos Water Recycling Facility, the community plan also needs to address the issues of water supply and environmental constraints to add more development.

"I did take a three-minute shower today," Los Osos resident Alexandra Fairfield told the Coastal Commission at the June 13 meeting. "Tomorrow, I'll skip it."

Fairfield belongs to the wave of critics who oppose the commission's decision. They claim that lifting the suspension on building developments—mainly single-family and multi-family residential units—would dry up what they say is an overdrafted Los Osos Valley Groundwater Basin.

But community members of the 15,000-resident Los Osos and even officials hold opposing views on the basin's condition. Coastal Commission staff recommended approving the community plan on the grounds that the water supply is now adequate. It aligned with SLO County's position that the basin is no longer in overdraft.

"The BMC [basin management committee] has shown that the community has used less water for several years now than the basin's calculated sustainable or safe yield," Kevin Kahn, the Coastal Commission's Central Coast district manager, said at the meeting.

Aggravated by a suburban residential boom in the 1970s, Los Osos suffered from groundwater depletion, seawater intrusion, and nitrate contamination by the 1980s. In 1988, the SLO County Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered a ban on almost all new septic systems, which triggered the building moratorium. Los Osos' status as an environmentally sensitive habitat area added to its building constraints. The entire community sits on an ancient dune landform that produces a soil type called baywood fine sands, which supports a unique set of wildlife.

While Los Osos addressed its wastewater problems when the Los Osos Water Recycling Facility became operational in 2016, it still needed to solve the water supply problem and environmental limitations to make way for development. SLO County's Los Osos Community Plan served as the response to those issues.

Coastal Commission staff tweaked the county's submitted plan to ensure that building would occur in a sustainable manner that balances the wastewater, groundwater, and environmental concerns. Currently, Los Osos has 250 single-family residential units on its building waitlist. Staff recommended placing an annual growth rate cap of 1 percent—up to 50 residential units—on the community plan to limit an influx of development.

That recommended rate is down from the estimated 1.3 percent annual growth rate that the county calculated for the initial version of the plan, which could have increased Los Osos's population to 18,000 people by 2040.

"The Coastal Commission just wants to be conservative," 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who represents Los Osos, told New Times. "The county overall has only grown less than 1 percent in recent years."

Real estate broker Jeff Edwards added that the 1 percent limit is a fair residential growth rate for Los Osos. The most significant limiting factor, he said, is the cost of development that's marked by a slew of engineering expenses and permits and impact fees.

"Just as a round number, you're going to need $100,000 to advance a single-family residential project to the point of construction," Edwards said. "We've got residential growth management, ... water neutrality, and development is also going to pay its fair share in impact fees for not only water and sewer but also for all the other public facilities. It's not going to happen overnight."

Los Osos Sustainability Group Chair Patrick McGibney insisted that the groundwater basin is still in overdraft, adding that those who disagree are only relying on estimated water data and not confirmed numbers.

"The 1 percent growth rate is a big concern," he told New Times. "We don't have enough water."

Unlike its neighbors Cayucos and Morro Bay that use water from Whale Rock Reservoir and the state, respectively, Los Osos' only water source is the groundwater basin, he added.

McGibney and the sustainability group regularly appeal county-issued coastal development permits for Los Osos projects that they believe would further deplete the limited water supply.

Prior to the June 13 meeting, the Coastal Commission found substantial issues with the coastal development permit of one of the projects that McGibney appealed. Most recently, the longtime Los Osos resident also unsuccessfully appealed two other project permits before the Board of Supervisors on June 18. Those hearings are set to appear before the Coastal Commission as well.

"Are we all conserving water to save our basin or are we doing it to have more development?" McGibney said.

Commission staff bolstered the county's response to the environmental constraints by recommending the community plan follow provisions outlined in the county's habitat conservation plan. Site disturbance through new development must be mitigated through paying into the county's greenbelt or habitat conservation program.

Supervisor Gibson told New Times that the county worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 15 years to devise the habitat conservation plan that was approved this year. Payment into the fund is based on the size of the proposed area of development. That fund would be applied to conserve a piece of land of the same size in a section surrounding Los Osos called the green belt.

The SLO County Board of Supervisors will deliberate the community plan modifications and iron out the conservation fund program process in the fall. If approved, the Los Osos Community Plan will return to the Coastal Commission for final ratification in December.

"We're already giving millions to the county in terms of property tax," McGibney said. "The idea that we would pay to destroy habitat for species ... and expect the county to do anything is wishful thinking." Δ

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

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