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Avila's voice was heard 

Now is the time to remember residents who stood up for their community

The community of Avila Beach is in the news again; attention is being focused on “Lachen Tara,” the community’s affordable housing apartments. It seems timely to think about the history of how this tiny community was able to secure the affordable housing in the first place.

It’s a story that needs to be told before it is forgotten. Memories fade. Residents have moved or are no longer with us.

Over time, what has been accomplished becomes taken for granted. Actually, the whole Avila cleanup was a series of individual acts of heroism, without any one of which the whole cleanup effort would never have happened.

Too often people think individual efforts don’t mean much anymore. People often feel “what’s the use?”—especially if they are up against large corporations or government bureaucracies. If we don’t tell the stories of our real heroes, residents are deprived of understanding how important they truly are and how effective they can be. “Lachen Tara” is a testament to their efforts.

To understand how “Lachen Tara” came to be, you need to understand something of the history of Avila and how the community had been treated by corporate and government agencies. There had been a number of oil spills in Avila long before the major 1998 “settlement.” Unocal, the Department of Fish and Game, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and San Luis Obispo County (to name a few of the participants and beneficiaries) had negotiated settlements wherein they all got something—meaning large sums of money or, in the case of Unocal, release from liability. The problem was that the community of Avila received very little.

As county supervisor, I came on board just as one earlier spill was being settled, and I was surprised to learn that very little was being done to mitigate where the spill actually occurred. When I questioned that lack of a direct relationship (the “nexus”) between the fines and the use of those fines, I was told that the agencies couldn’t find anything related to fish habitat in Avila Bay that needed attention. If anyone had visited Avila, they would have seen the Salmon Enhancement cages and other equipment that were in desperate need of repair. These people were trying to do so much with so little that their successes never ceased to be amazing. The agencies couldn’t find any local “need?” Then they hadn’t tried very hard.

Avila residents were very upset about how government agencies made “behind closed door” settlements with Unocal that benefited the agencies and left out the local community.

The affordable housing component of the 1998 Settlement Agreement was one of those last-minute flukes, where, to its credit, Unocal really listened to the residents. So many folks were going to be displaced with the proposed cleanup, how would regular, working people ever be able to afford to live in Avila again? That was the question residents were asking. They didn’t want Avila to be only for the elite. It was no secret that, once the ban on bank loans was lifted, ordinary workers would never be able to afford the spike in housing prices that would inevitably occur.

The proposed cleanup of Avila was for massive excavation, with the displacement of many residents. Whether or not the cleanup would actually occur absolutely depended on the cooperation of those very same Avila residents.

For some, coming to an agreement would mean losing their homes. One such family had owned their home for generations; it had been built by the owner’s grandfather. It was no small sacrifice on their part to let their own home go for the benefit of the greater community. It was very important to them that their loss contribute something to the future of the community they loved.

We held a community meeting where residents discussed this very issue. Avila residents decided that they would not go along with any settlement that did not include something tangible for the community—and that meant land for actual affordable housing in order to replace some of what was going to be lost. It was their way of being effective and gave new meaning to “people power!”

I met with Unocal and its attorney with the community’s mandate. It must have seemed odd to them that, even after they met with all the agencies and had ironed out what each of them wanted, here was this “mandate” coming from regular folks with no legal authority.

Unocal was a hard bargainer—after all, they supposedly had all the “approvals” they needed. But they realized they didn’t have the most important approval of all: that of the residents. Unocal finally agreed to donate the land. The housing was to be first for the Avila residents displaced by the cleanup, then for future workers of Avila Beach. If there were still vacancies, it could be available to workers in the Avila area.

The county had a history of having various nonprofit organizations build housing using public monies, but then, when the organization no longer needed the building, it would be sold and none of the money returned to the public coffers that funded the projects in the first place. Profits from the sale would go to the “nonprofits!” Avila residents did not want this to happen to them. This was a requirement from Avila residents: that whoever built the project would know that the land belonged to Avila. If ever the organization no longer ran the project, the land and the project would revert back to the county on behalf of Avila residents. While this provision had to be technically modified to meet grant/bank loan requirements, the intent and agreement remain. People’s Self-Help Housing Corporation has been a very good steward of the “Lachen Tara” project and assured the Board of Supervisors at the time that the original agreement would always be honored.

A big “thank you” to those most responsible for “Lachen Tara”: Pat and Janet Farris, Evelyn Phelan, Archie McLaren, Perry and Brenda Martin, and Maridel and John Salisbury—Avila residents who made a difference in making sure that Avila’s voice was heard!

Peg Pinard is a former San Luis Obispo County supervisor. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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