Monday, April 05, 2010

Let's Try This Again: Why Was the Deeply Flawed, "Infeasible" Tri-W Project Permitted by the California Coastal Commission in 2004? Part II

TO: Sarah Christie, Legislative Liaison, California Coastal Commission
DATE: 4/5/10

Hello Sarah,

I'm researching a story about Los Osos, and I currently have a gaping hole in my story that I was hoping you could help me fill in.

The reason I'm contacting you is because 1) I e-mailed, Charles Lester, Senior Deputy Director, California Coastal Commission Central Coast District Office, a version of this e-mail last December, but he never replied, and 2) I thought you'd be the perfect source for my question (that's right, just one question) considering that you were on the SLO County County Planning Commission recently when the current version of the Los Osos wastewater project was approved by your Board, and you also currently work for the Coastal Commission, and those two, combined, seem to make you the perfect source for my question:

Why was the Los Osos CSD's "Tri-W project" permitted by the California Coastal Commission in 2004?

That's the gaping hole in my story.

Here's why:

In September 2004, only one month after the Coastal Commission gave final approval to the Tri-W project, I authored a New Times cover story, titled Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown.

That story is archived at this link:

In that story, I first exposed how the only -- repeat only -- reason that an industrial sewer plant was being planned for the middle of Los Osos, was so that the town's residents could easily access a multi-million dollar public park that CSD officials had designed into their project.

For example, one (of the many) sources I used in Three Blocks to show that point, was the following quote that I dug straight out of the project's official report, that was produced by Los Osos CSD officials in 2001:

"The size and location of the other sites did not provide an opportunity to create a community amenity. The sites on the outskirts of town could not deliver a community use area that was readily accessible to the majority of residents..."

Shortly after Three Blocks was published, I also discovered the following quote in the Tri-W project's development permit:

"... other alternatives (to the Tri-W site) were rejected (by the Los Osos CSD) on the basis that they did not accomplish project objectives for centrally located community amenities."

What Three Blocks concludes (among other very interesting things), is that the Tri-W project wasn't so much a sewer plant that included a public park, as much as it was a park project that included a sewer plant.

That's a much more accurate description of the project. Think about it... if ALL other potential, out-of-town sites were "rejected" by the LOCSD because they were too far away for residents to easily access the park, then the park is dictating the location (and adding tens of millions of dollars to the cost of the project... which was ALL on the park), and that makes the Tri-W project a park project, and not a sewer project. Take the multi-million dollar park out of the Tri-W project, and there's no reason why it couldn't have been easily moved out of town, just like I first showed in Three Blocks.

And, now, in 2010, four years and $7-plus million worth of SLO County analysis has proven Three Blocks to be 100-percent right.

For example, in a May 31, 2007, letter to County Supervisors, Paavo Ogren, then-Deputy Director of Public Works, wrote, "... the objectives that tilted the scale in favor of (the Tri-W) site may no longer have the weight they were given when the site was originally selected. In other words, “amenities”, like community parks, will not obscure the goals of providing the most efficient and cost effective solution to wastewater and groundwater problems."

Furthermore, according to the county's 2007 Pro/Con Report of the numerous project alternatives county officials considered for Los Osos, the Tri-W project came in dead last.

I've condensed what the Pro/Con Report says about the Tri-W project:

- - -

- "(Tri-W's) downtown location (near library, church, community center) and the high density residential area require that the most expensive treatment technology, site improvements and odor controls be employed."


- "It has high construction costs..." ($55 million. The next highest treatment facility option is estimated at $19 million.)


- "Very high land value and mitigation requirements"


- Tri-W energy requirements: "Highest"


- "Small acreage and location in downtown center of towns require most expensive treatment"


- "higher costs overall"


- "Limited flexibility for future expansion, upgrades, or alternative energy"


- "Source of community divisiveness"


- "All sites are tributary to the Morro Bay National Estuary and pose a potential risk in the event of failure. Tri-W poses a higher risk..."


- "NOTE: It was the unanimous opinion of the (National Water Research Institute) that an out of town site is better due to problematic issues with the downtown site."


- "ESHA – sensitive dune habitat"

- - -

Gets worse.

According to the March 2009, "Los Osos Wastewater Project Community Advisory Survey," conducted by county officials, "Only (9-percent) of (Prohibition Zone) respondents chose the mid-town (Tri-W) location (as their preference for the treatment facility)."

... and worse:

In a June 2009 letter to the California Coastal Commission, the SLO County "Project team," states, "The Project team, given the clear social infeasibility issue associated with Mid Town (Tri-W) and the infeasible status of the LOCSD disposal plan, believes that if either of those options are deemed by decision-makers to be the best solution for Los Osos, then serious consideration should be given by the Board (of Supervisors) to adopt a due diligence resolution and not pursue Project implementation."

... and worse:

In August 2004, when the California Coastal Commission was discussing the development permit for the Tri-W project, Commissioner, Toni Iseman, according to official transcripts, said, "I don't remember anything with as many cautions and questions that came up with an approval, than this project."

... and worse:

The California Coastal Commission approved the Tri-W project on a 7-1 vote, with Iseman as the lone dissenter.

So, again, here's my question: Why?

Why was the deeply, deeply flawed Tri-W project permitted by the California Coastal Commission in 2004?

In the context of 2010, that decision doesn't seem to make any sense whatsoever, and, like I wrote above, it is currently a gaping hole in my story, especially considering that I wrote a New Times cover story in 2004 that showed the Tri-W project was a park project that included a sewer system. And, right now, in 2010, my 2004 story is still completely unresolved, and that's a HUGE hole in my story that I'm eventually going to have to fill-in for my upcoming book on the subject. Incredibly, my six-year-old story is completely up in the air.

So, considering all of the information above, allow me to reword my question:

If the Tri-W project was socially and technically "infeasible," according to SLO County staff, and also very unpopular in the community because it included an unnecessarily expensive -- MUCH more expensive -- sewer plant in the middle of town, and if it was not the "environmentally preferable alternative," and if it had the "highest construction costs and energy requirements," and if it was being planned on "ESHA," and if it possessed "limited flexibility for future expansion, upgrades, or alternative energy," and if it was proposed at a "downtown location (near library, church, community center)" and directly across the street from "high density residential areas," and because of its proximity to "downtown" and "high density residential areas" it required "the most expensive treatment technology, site improvements and odor controls be employed," and if it posed the "highest" risk of spills into the Morro Bay National Estuary, and if it was also loaded with "cautions and questions" at the time of its permitting, according to a Coastal Commissioner (that ended up being proven 100-percent right), why was the Tri-W project permitted by the California Coastal Commission in the first place, in 2004?

That doesn't seem to make any sense.

And, here's why that question appears to be over-the-top important in 2010:

Had the Coastal Commission NOT approved that park-project-disguised-as-a-sewer-project, the Los Osos CSD would have been forced to move the sewer plant out of town in 2004, just like the county's four-year/$7-plus million analysis showed is the preferable way to go, and everything the county has just completed over the past four years, would have happened with the LOCSD starting in 2004. Which means that everything that's happened over the past six years -- AB 2701, the Los Osos recall election, four-years-and-$7-plus-million worth of county analysis, the LOCSD bankruptcy, the premature start of construction at the Tri-W site in 2005 that destroyed all of that "environmentally sensitive habitat," and, of course, the Water Quality Control Board enforcement actions (CDOs) on the 46 individual property owners -- would have never happened... had the Coastal Commission simply heeded Commissioner Iseman's extremely sensible advice, and not permitted the Tri-W park project.

So, again, how does the Coastal Commission answer this question in 2010:

Why was a wildly unpopular, "infeasible" project that was loaded with "cautions and questions," and not the "environmentally preferable alternative" -- a project that the 2001 - 2005 LOCSD spent nearly $25 million and four years developing, yet didn't even come close to making the County's short-list of alternative projects (as you, as a former SLO County Planning Commissioner, know) -- and was shown to be a complete (and [unnecessarily] very expensive) embarrassment by the county's own documents, permitted by the California Coastal Commission in 2004?

Do you know the answer to that question?

In the context of 2010, it seems like an awfully important question, and one that, not only Los Ososans deserve an answer to, but ALL Californians.

Plus, as you can now probably imagine, my book is going to require some sort of answer to that question. It's currently a gaping hole in my story.

Thank you for your time,

P.S. I've published this e-mail on my blog:

- - -

[Note: For the benefit of my reader(s) -- I put the "s" in "()" just in case there's more than one -- I already know the answer to my question BEFORE I ask it, as usual.

Here's the answer to my question:

The reason the Coastal Commission approved the Tri-W embarrassment in 2004 is because they were deliberately lied to by the 2000 - 2004 Los Osos CSD.

Steve Monowitz, the Coastal Commission staff member that handled the Tri-W development permit, told me, when I interviewed him over the phone in 2005, that he felt that he was "misled" by the LOCSD regarding the District's reasons for NOT moving the project to a site out of town, and if Monowitz were asked today -- under oath, in a simple deposition -- this question:

"Do you feel like you were lied to by the Los Osos CSD regarding the siting of the Tri-W sewer plant?"

He would answer that question, "Yes."

And, as I've reported repeatedly on SewerWatch, if Monowitz had NOT been "misled" by LOCSD officials on that extremely important point, not only would the Commission staff NOT recommended approval of the Tri-W project, they couldn't have approved it, because it was out of compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act... because it wasn't the "environmentally preferable" project, that CEQA requires.

So, THAT's why the California Coastal Commission approved the Tri-W embarrassment... because they were lied to (read: "bait and switchy") by the Los Osos CSD for four years.

That's the answer to my question... and, think about it, it makes perfect sense. I mean, why else would they have approved that mess, if they weren't tricked (again, read: "bait and switchy"-ed] into approving it?

Now, let's see how the Coastal Commission answers my question.]


[14 weeks down... 38 to go.]


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