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Safety a major concern for both sides of Morro stacks debate 

When the 450-foot-tall stacks in Morro Bay were first constructed in the 1950s and '60s, the purpose was to vent exhaust flow for the city's now defunct power plant. But what was once a necessity, perhaps even an eyesore, evolved into an iconic landmark that some Morro Bay residents are fighting to keep.

click to enlarge INSIDE THE STACKS Morro Bay is considering whether to demolish the iconic stacks that line the bayfront. Here, a prior plant manager stands inside the first stack that was constructed in the 1950s. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FACTS ABOUT THE STACKS FORUM POWERPOINT
  • Photo Courtesy Of Facts About The Stacks Forum Powerpoint
  • INSIDE THE STACKS Morro Bay is considering whether to demolish the iconic stacks that line the bayfront. Here, a prior plant manager stands inside the first stack that was constructed in the 1950s.

The city held a community forum, dubbed Facts About the Stacks, on Sept. 8 to give residents a chance to hear from the different agencies and stakeholders involved in the structures' fate.

Vistra, an electricity and power generation company that currently owns the property, put it bluntly: "We have never intended to keep them," Vistra Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Strategy Claudia Morrow said at the meeting. Vistra hopes to use the space to build a battery energy storage facility. But per a memorandum of understanding signed with the city in June, Morro Bay City Council gets the final say on the stacks coming down.

If the city decides to take down the stacks, Vistra will be financially responsible and must complete the demolition by the end of 2027. The city must decide whether to keep the stacks by the end of 2022. Morro Bay would then become responsible for ongoing costs like inspections, maintenance, and insurance. And if the city ever changed its mind, it would have to pay for the stacks' removal.

City Manager Scott Collins said at the meeting that the discussion about the stacks' fate and the future potential uses of the site has been ongoing for the last 20 years, "ever since the previous owners were talking about repowering the plant," he said. "And then when we got into the position where we knew the plant was going to be decommissioned, there's been a lot of discussion about what should happen with the plant, and in particular the stacks, since they definitely raise some issues around the iconicness of them and some of the nostalgia around that."

More than 200 community members attended the virtual meeting and were able to ask questions through a moderator via the Zoom chat and email.

Some community members raised concerns about the stacks' structural integrity. Vistra Director of Decommissioning and Demolition Dianna Tickner said the stacks are in good condition and survived the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake. But whether the stacks would hold up against even stronger seismic events is unknown. Tickner added that, if the city decides to maintain the stacks, Vistra recommends installing custom caps on each structure to protect the interiors, which would come with a hefty price tag for the city of $275,000 per stack.

"There's not any operational purpose for them," Vistra executive Morrow said. "We recognize that they have a unique value to some of the Morro Bay community. We agreed to give the city time to conduct forums like this so we can share information and what we know about the stacks in that regard."

Morrow emphasized Vistra's commitment to work with the city if it decides to keep the landmarks.

City Manager Collins shared some ideas from the community, such as turning the stacks into an art installation, or even using them for recreational purposes. But, he added, from a safety and regulatory standpoint, it's unlikely that the stacks could be converted to use for "thrill-seeking opportunities."

Collins told New Times after the meeting that the city expects the stacks discussion to come to council in the next couple months. Until then, the city encourages the community to stay engaged on the issue. The Sept. 8 forum can be watched on the city's YouTube page. Δ

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