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Morro Bay switches gears on water reclamation facility 

After several tumultuous months surrounding preliminary plans to build a water reclamation facility near a residential neighborhood in Morro Bay, the City Council responded to residents’ concerns by pursuing a less controversial location.

The council voted unanimously on June 14 to move plans to the Tri-W site, located north of the Highway 101 and South Bay Boulevard interchange just east of the city. Things shifted to that site after neighbors raised a stink about previous plans to build the facility on the Righetti Ranch, located in the Morro Valley and within 2,000 feet of 424 homes.

Those neighbors had several concerns, primarily over smell, noise, and light pollution impacts. They urged the city to reconsider the Tri-W property, which is farther away from residential areas and less visible to the public.

Since 2013, the city has been assessing new locations to build a water reclamation facility (WRF) after ditching attempts to move and retrofit their existing wastewater treatment plant, which came under fire from the California Coastal Commission for its beachside location in a flood plain and tsunami zone.

The city picked Righetti as its top site after another less-controversial Morro Valley site fell through. The Tri-W wasn’t initially prioritized because preliminary cost estimates determined it would be about 15 percent more expensive than the Righetti site, and early input from city residents showed that cost effectiveness was a main priority for the project.

But recent threats of a protracted fight and likely litigation over the Righetti site made the city reconsider, in part because significant project delays could make that site not-so-cost-effective.

Now staff has been directed to further analyze the Tri-W site and to develop a facility master plan.

There hasn’t yet been any significant opposition to the Tri-W site, and city officials said that the majority of concerns they have heard were assuaged after more outreach.

At the June 14 meeting, Righetti neighbors urged the City Council to completely remove that site from the short list.

“It’s time, it’s more than time, to remove Righetti from the list once and for all, so we can get on with your lives and remove this hammer that’s constantly hanging over our heads,” said Tina Metzger, who spoke before engaging all five councilmembers in a very intense, quiet stare down during the remainder of her public comment time.

Metzger previously submitted a letter identifying what she considered to be “fatal flaws,” or major problems often identified early in the planning process.

City Manager Dave Buckingham took exception to those assertions.

“That fatal flaws memo is actually fatally flawed,” Buckingham said. “It contains completely exaggerated statements and inaccurate accusations.”

Still, several residents urged Righetti be struck from the list so it couldn’t come back in the future.

“The pressure and the stress and the sleepless nights of not having this Righetti issue resolved are too much to bear,” Linda Warwick said. “We’ve put it out there, and yet it’s still on the list as a viable alternative. We need to know that you’re listening and that this is going to be resolved tonight.”

City Attorney Joe Panone said that per California law, an environmental impact report (EIR) must identify all viable alternatives, so it was in the city’s best interest to keep the Righetti site on the list, otherwise the EIR would be more vulnerable to a legal challenge—and costly project delays—down the road.

Buckingham agreed.

“Because the Righetti site has been one of our primary alternatives, and was selected through a full public process, it’s even more risky to remove that site without any compelling reason to do so other than the passion of neighbors toward that site,” he said.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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