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San Simeon landowners to get off water waitlist following legal settlement 

Eight San Simeon property owners will get off a water waitlist in the near future, allowing them to take the next steps toward developing their properties, thanks to a settlement between one local man and the San Simeon Community Services District (CSD).

The tentative agreement reached between Bob Hather, a San Luis Obispo resident and owner of an acre of undeveloped land in San Simeon, and the North Coast board will make Hather $50,000 richer and bring him one step closer to making his development plans a reality. He wants to build 15 affordable housing units.

Hather filed both federal and state suits last year after the district refused to provide water service to his property and rejected his application for an exemption from the water moratorium, which has been in effect since 1986.

Once finalized, the May 10 decision made in closed session gives Hather a water service commitment from the district. Before he can actually develop, he'll first have to secure a coastal development permit from the county and avoid any appeals from the California Coastal Commission, which have halted proposed developments in Cambria in the past.

"The federal lawsuit generally challenged the district's failure to provide water [for] certain residents, particularly the ones who paid to be on the waitlist," said Babak Naficy, one of Hather's lawyers. "In the state claim ... we also had specifically challenged the district's denial of Mr. Hather's hardship application."

Under the district's water connection moratorium, there's a provision that allows property owners to get an exemption based on factors like financial hardship, the extent of the proposed water usage, and environmental impacts. Hather and his lawyers say that he qualifies for the hardship exemption in multiple ways, particularly that the development is his retirement plan.

"The way the [settlement] is structured, they basically reconsidered the denial of [Hather's] hardship exemption," Naficy said of the board's May 10 decision.

CSD board member Michael Donahue said the board initially rejected Hather's request partially out of fairness to others on the waitlist. There are 14 applicants on the San Simeon water waitlist right now, and Hather is No. 8.

"He was kind of jumping in line. He's not No. 1 on the water waitlist, why should we honor No. 8 before No. 1?" Donahue said. "[The board] also felt that this hardship was pretty much a fiction: Everybody can claim hardship."

But after Hather filed his lawsuits, Donahue said the board was concerned about the exorbitant costs of going to court.

"It would have dragged on and the legal bills would have far exceeded the settlement that was finally agreed to, in my opinion," Donahue said. "I think the settlement was a balanced settlement, and it was done with the idea of minimizing legal bills."

As part of the tenative settlement, the district is paying Hather $50,000 for his attorney fees. Donahue said the cost of going to court would have been far higher.

Under the settlement, the district will also provide water commitments to everyone ahead of Hather on the waitlist.

"There's no unfairness to it in that respect," Donahue said. "So he [Hather] kind of did everybody a favor. Now, I'm sure there's some people ahead of him that are going to say, 'Why give him $50,000 in district funds?'"

Donahue supports phasing out the water moratorium, which would allow everyone remaining on the waitlist to get a water service commitment from the CSD too. He said the district commissioned a hydrological report that "shows that we have more than enough water for all people on the waitlist, even in a once in a hundred year drought."

"There still needs to be an in-stream flow study completed to make sure that excessive pumping does not harm frogs and stuff like that in the stream," he added, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of November.

Donahue said that in the past, the board has held a "nobody's complaining so let's do nothing" attitude about letting people off the waitlist.

"I do think it's because of Bob Hather's lawsuit that we actually commissioned the hydrologic report showing water availability and the instream flow study," Donahue said. "Why wasn't this done a long time ago? Because nobody was threatening to sue the district." Δ


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