Friday, December 31, 2010

Journalism Bookends: September 23, 2004 - June 11, 2010 -- The Amazing 6-year Timeline of Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown

by Ron Crawford


Absolutely beautiful.

Journalistically speaking, it doesn't get any better than this: My "journalism bookends." September 23, 2004 and June 11, 2010.

The left bookend is my 2004 New Times cover story, Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown.

The right bookend -- June 11, 2010 -- the date when the California Coastal Commission proved my six year-old story 100-percent right... six years after it was published.

Here's the amazing, epic story.

In Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown, I was the first (and, remarkably, and sadly, still ONLY) reporter to show that the only reason the Los Osos Community Services District was about to build an industrial sewer plant smack-dab in the middle of town, on "Environmentally Sensitive Habitat," three blocks upwind of downtown, was so the town-folk could more easily access an elaborate, multi-million dollar public park that the LOCSD had included in their project -- for no documentable reason whatsoever -- and that building the sewer plant in the middle of town, due solely to the elaborate, nonsensical park, was actually adding multi-millions of dollars to the already-very-expensive project, AND that there was no documentable reason whatsoever why the LOCSD decided to include a park in their sewer plant to begin with -- a park that was locking in the location of a wildly unpopular, downtown sewer plant.

In other words, what I originally showed in Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown was a bombshell: If the multi-million dollar, nonsensical public park, that the Los Osos public never even wanted in its sewer plant to begin with (of course), had simply never been included in the sewer plant plans by the 2000 - 2005 LOCSD in the first place, then the entire downtown sewer plant project could easily be moved out of town, downwind, where land is MUCH less expensive, and "environmentally preferable," and where the vast majority of the community "prefers" it anyway, of course, and, where the County of SLO just spent some four years and $7 million showing that an out of town sewer plant location is much cheaper, more "environmentally preferable," and overwhelmingly more socially acceptable, of course.

In more other words, the County of SLO just spent the past four years and $7 million dollars proving Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown to be 100-percent accurate. Yep, journalistically speaking, it doesn't get much better than that.

Of all the great quotes that I include in Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown, many, like the one below, I pulled straight out of the LOCSD's 2001 "Facilities Report" while researching that story -- the first and still only reporter to pull these amazing quotes -- this one's the knock-out blow:

"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 in the manner that a central location such as Resource Park (Tri-W site) could."

As I originally wrote in Three Blocks:

"The size and location of the other sites did not provide an opportunity to create a community amenity? Are you kidding me? With that logic, why even consider other potential sites at all?"

I am, remarkably, still, to this day, the only person, let alone, reporter, that has ever asked that unbelievably excellent question.... to this today, I'm the only one.

Amazing. With that one quote -- that I exclusively pulled out of the 2001 Facilities Report -- the Los Osos CSD was able to eliminate every other potential, out of town site for their sewer plant, and lock in the exact same location as their failed "better, cheaper, faster" project that they chased from 1999 - 2000 -- its failure was the subject of my June 2000, New Times cover story, Problems With the Solution... with that one quote!

And then I would go on to show, both in Three Blocks and extended in SewerWatch, how the exact opposite is true in Los Osos: That the town's property owners 1) do NOT want to start shelling out taxes for expensive park amenities in Los Osos, at the same time they are staring down a gigantic sewer assessment, and 2) they overwhelmingly never wanted to lock in an unneccassarily expensive, wildly unpopular, downtown sewer plant location, just so they could easily "picnic" with the kids at the sewer plant's "tot lot."

That's exactly what I first showed in Three Blocks, and that's exactly what four years and $7 million worth of SLO County government analysis shows:

"Only (9-percent) of (Prohibition Zone) respondents chose the mid-town (Tri-W) location" as their preferred location for a sewer plant for Los Osos
-- Los Osos Wastewater Project Community Advisory Survey, March 27, 2009

I wonder how many of that 9-percent would still prefer the downtown site if they knew that it meant they'd also be paying for multi-millions of dollars worth of nonsensical park amenities (I mean, a "picnic area" in a sewer plant? Huh?), that, according to the project's development permit, had to be professionally maintained by the LOCSD "in perpituity?"

I'm going to guess .00002 percent.

So, with all of that in mind...

Dear readers, SewerWatch presents, "The Amazing 6-year Timeline of Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown"

The beginning of the timeline actually starts just before my left bookend date of Sept. 23, 2004, and is very, very interesting.

  • Friday, August 13, 2004: That is the date when the California Coastal Commission denied Concerned Citizens of Los Osos, and Citizens for Affordable & Safe Environment -- the main opposition to the Tri-W project in 2004 -- appeal to have the entire development permit for the Tri-W project "revoked."

    That meant that the LOCSD was now free and clear to pursue their project.

    However, and here's where this little chapter gets very interesting on a journalism level, I, because of my previous (and extensive) reporting experience on the Los Osos sewer story, as both a newspaper reporter and editor, had kept following the story from afar, and I knew -- based on my previous reporting -- that Concerned Citizens of Los Osos, and Citizens for Affordable & Safe Environment, in their appeal, had taken a HUGE swing-and-a-miss on the "nonsensical park is dictating the nonsensical location" angle -- the ONE point that would have stopped the Tri-W project in its tracks.

    (It's at this point in my story where I always say that the lawyers that handled that appeal should give Concerned Citizens of Los Osos, and Citizens for Affordable & Safe Environment their money back. How those attorneys missed that whole "nonsensical park is dictating the nonsensical location" angle, when it was sitting right in front of them? Inexcusable.)

    So, look at my situation right there, in the late summer of 2004. There I was, "retired" from freelance journalism (because, I like to, you know, eat), however I also knew, due to the recent failure of the CCLO appeal, and my vast professional experience with the story, that I was the ONLY person not associated with the 2004 LOCSD that was aware that a nonsensical park was dictating the nonsensical, highly controversial, downtown, Tri-W sewer plant location.

    And, right then -- right after the CCLO appeal failed -- I also knew that if I didn't at least try to get my story published, and if the disastrous Tri-W "project" went on to be built in the middle of Los Osos -- a community that I had grown to love due to my years of reporting there -- I would regret that decision for the rest of my life.

    So I committed.

    Four years after my previous New Times cover story on Los Osos, I dove in head first, and spent the next three weeks researching and writing my story -- a story that showed, for the first time anywhere, that there was absolutely no documentable rationale whatsoever on why the 2004 LOCSD was building a wildly unpopular sewer plant smack-dab in the middle of their beautiful California coastal town.

    So that's the extremely important journalism point here -- the action that spurred me into writing Three Blocks, was the failure of the CCLO revocation request in August of 2004, because I knew, right at that moment, that I was a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi: I was Los Osos' only hope, and no one in the community knew it.

  • September 23, 2004: The publication date of Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown

    I have a personal saying I use to describe that story: "I wrote that story so it reads casually, but I didn't write that story casually."

    I knew I had one shot on that story -- one cover story -- and so I made the decision to pack my story with everything that had gone a-missin' in the Los Osos sewer debate over the previous three years.

    In Three Blocks, not only was I the first (and still only) reporter to show that a nonsensical park was dictating a nonsensical downtown sewer plant location, but also how the decision by the LOCSD to lock in the downtown location with their nonsensical park, just happened to lock in the same location as their failed "better, cheaper, faster" ponding project, that was the "basis" for forming the LOCSD in 1998, to begin with.

    I show how then-LOCSD general manager, Bruce Buel, was highly confused over the entire "amenities" issue, as I stood shoulder to shoulder with him at the LOCSD office, hovering over the "cost estimates" in the facilities report, that failed to account for the millions of dollars in park stuff that was scattered all over the report's front cover.

    I show, through a phone interview with engineer, Steve Hyland, of Montgomery Watson (at the time) -- the firm contracted to develop the Tri-W project -- how he, too, was totally confused when it came to the only reason for the downtown location -- the nonsensical "picnic area"/"tot lot" sewer plant, that the town never even wanted to begin with, of course.

    And, it's also in that story, where I, for the first time, began to look in the direction of former LOCSD vice-president, Pandora Nash-Karner, on why there was an over-the-top expensive, public works disaster in Los Osos, when I write:

      One has to ask here, where does this drive for a "drop-dead gorgeous" (sewer) park come from? What's the source of these "strongly held community values"? Who came up with these horrible euphemisms (I'm looking in your direction Pandora Nash-Karner. After all, you were a member of the "Vision Team"; a member, if not leader, of the "Solution Group"; the No. 1 vote-getter in the inaugural CSD Board; a longtime and current member of the County Park Commission; and someone who throws highly documentable phrases like these around liberally)?

    And my personal little favorite part of Three Blocks? How I tie it in to my 2000 New Times cover story, where I write:

      The ponds will be located three blocks upwind of downtown and directly across from the town’s community center–the site of several community meetings regarding this very subject.

    That was published in 2000, and then I used that exact phrase as the headline for my second cover story, four years later.


  • November 5, 2002 Election: To move my timeline forward here, I first need to jump back a few years, because this... is... great!

    November 5, 2002 was the date of the election for three Los Osos CSD Board seats.

    According to, the results of that race were:

    Stan Gustafson 3509 votes 20.3%
    Gordon Hensley 3340 votes 19.3%
    Richard LeGros 3178 votes 18.4%
    Julie Tacker 2035 votes 11.8% [bolding mine]

    My very important point here is that Julie Tacker was soundly defeated in that election, only garnering "2035 votes."

    That was in 2002.

    Tacker, who was part of CCLO and heavily involved in the terribly thought-out, and failed attempt to revoke the Tri-W permit in August of 2004, would run for the LOCSD Board again, in November of 2004... about a month after the publication of Three Blocks.

    How'd Tacker fare this time around, with a widely circulated newspaper article stuffed in voters' pockets, that showed that the only reason a sewer plant was being built in the middle of their town was due to a nonsensical public park?

  • November 2, 2004 Election:

    "Julie Tacker: 4014 votes, 33.2%"

    Vote count nearly doubled... in just two years, and she was elected to the Los Osos CSD Board of Directors.

    So what happened? Why such a dramatic change, in such a short time? It certainly wasn't due to the local media's non-existent coverage of the "nonsensical park is dictating the nonsensical sewer plant location" story.


    That was exclusively me, and, so far as I can tell, the ONLY thing that happened between Tacker's "2035" performance in 2002, and her "4014" performance in 2004 well, other than her failed revocation attempt -- was Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown. That was the only difference.

    Incidentally, Lisa Schicker, who, like Tacker, also ran on a platform of "Working for a more affordable, environmentally superior sewer project - out of town, away from our library, church, community center and the Bay," received "5123 votes" in that 2004 election... just six weeks after Three Blocks was published.

    To put that "5123" number in perspective, the #1 vote-getter in the 2002 LOCSD election was pro-Tri-W project incumbent, Stan Gustafson, "3509."

    The 2004 election marked the first time that non-pro-Tri-W project candidates were elected to the Los Osos CSD Board of Directors.

  • June 15, 2005: The date I launched this blog, SewerWatch.

    The significance of that date can not be overestimated in this story.

    After my first New Times cover story, Problems With the Solution, in 2000, where I was the first to show that the "better, cheaper, faster" project that was solely responsible for forming the Los Osos CSD in the first place, AND killing the County's 1998 "ready to go" sewer project, was on the verge of failing, and less than a month after my story was published, "better, cheaper, faster" was officially in the dumpster, something weird happened.

    The Los Osos sewer disaster should have ended the moment my freelance piece, Problems With the Solution, hit the streets, and the entire project should have simply reverted back to the County's 1998 "ready to go" project?

    But it didn't!


    For whatever reason (probably because I scooped all of them), there was absolutely zero follow-up by the local media to my over-the-top newsworthy, 2000 New Times cover story, and with zero follow-up, my over-the-top newsworthy, 2000 New Times cover story just faded away, and the LOCSD was never forced to do the obvious thing at that point; turn back to county's "ready to go" project.

    Of course, doing that would have showed that there was no reason to form the LOCSD in the first place, and that the previous two years of futilely chasing "better, cheaper, faster" was a complete, and colossal, waste of time and money.

    So, as you can imagine, I wasn't about to let the same thing happen to my second New Times cover story, that happened to my first.

    Thank god for blog technology!

    SewerWatch, over the past five years, has allowed me to follow-up every detail I first exposed in Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown, all the way up to 2010, when my 2004 story was officially shown to be 100-percent accurate.

    I'm convinced, that had blog technology existed in 2000, like it did/does from 2005-present, the LOCSD would have been forced to turn back to the county's 1998 project in 2000, because I would have been able to follow-up Problems With the Solution just like I followed-up Three Blocks, and, right now, today, there would be an operating sewer system in Los Osos, with a treatment facility on the outskirts of town, and with a monthly payment of about $70.00.

    After the past four years-and-counting, and nearly $8 million of analysis, estimates for the county's current proposed project hover around $200/month.

    [Note: Problems With the Solution will be big part of the "supplemental material" in my Pulitzer application, of course.]

  • September 27, 2005: The date of the Los Osos CSD recall election -- almost one year to the day after Three Blocks was published.

    Following the election of Tacker in Schicker, and despite the huge number of votes involved in their victories, there was still a board majority that favored the Tri-W project: Stan Gustafson, Gordon Hensley, and Richard LeGros.

    All three were recalled on September 27, 2005... one year after Three Blocks.

    Measure C-2005. Recall -- Los Osos Community Services District
    3,391 / 51.2% Yes votes ...... 3231 / 48.8% No votes
    Shall STAN GUSTAFSON be recalled (removed) from the office of Director of the Los Osos Community Services District?

    Measure D-2005. Recall -- Los Osos Community Services District
    3,358 / 50.7% Yes votes ...... 3264 / 49.3% No votes
    Shall GORDON HENSLEY be recalled (removed) from the office of Director of the Los Osos Community Services District?

    Measure E-2005. Recall -- Los Osos Community Services District
    3,412 / 51.5% Yes votes ...... 3215 / 48.5% No votes
    Shall RICHARD LEGROS be recalled (removed) from the office of Director of the Los Osos Community Services District?

    The new, "post-recall" board consisted entirely of directors committed to moving the sewer plant "out of town," and, almost immediately after the election, the new LOCSD Board of Directors voted 5-0 to stop work on the Tri-W project.

    The Tri-W project should have died for good, right there, but the small handful of people responsible for spending (read: wasting) six years and some $25 million on its development weren't about to go away quietly. They had too much to lose. Think about it.

  • September 20, 2006: The date AB 2701 was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger.

    AB 2701, through much lobbying by the people responsible for the Tri-W disaster, removed control of the project from the post-recall LOCSD Board, and handed it to the County of San Luis Obispo.

    Despite the clear unwillingness of the community to build a sewer plant in the middle of town just so residents could easily get to the nonsensical "picnic area" that was built into the nonsensical Tri-W project, the people responsible for the Tri-W "project" were able to successfully lobby SLO County officials into including it in the county's analysis of the various waste water system alternatives for Los Osos.

    And that meant that the Tri-W project didn't die after the recall election, like it should have, and it gained new life due solely to AB 2701.

    In a May 31, 2007 memo to SLO County Supervisors, Paavo Ogren, then-Deputy Director of Public Works for SLO County, writes, "The original location for the CSD project (the Tri-W site) remains an alternative, certainly to the chagrin of its many opponents."

    And, that meant that, in 2007, my 2004 Three Blocks was still completely unresolved.

    Incidentally, in that same memo, Ogren writes, "However, the objectives that tilted the scale in favor of this 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."

    In Three Blocks, I write:
      But when the criteria used to rank the sites is examined, there's substantial weight given to (euphemism-alert here) something called "Community Acceptance," and a large portion of that criteria is "open space, enhancement, access" and "aesthetic factors." Specifically, the five criteria used to rank the potentials site and their weight were:

      Cost (56), Resource Sustainability (33), Regulatory (31), Community Acceptance (25), and Future Flexibility (1). When these numbers are plugged into a model (developed by a subcommittee of a subcommittee, incidentally), a ranking is produced with the sites with the highest scores in descending order. In this case, Tri-W was No. 1.

    From the passage of AB 2701 in September 2006 (two years after Three Blocks), until June 2010, four years and $8 million worth of SLO County government analysis would prove to be brutal on the Tri-W project.

    As I first reported on SewerWatch, here's what the County's Technical Advisory Committee's Pro/Con Analysis, available at this link:

    ... says about the LOCSD's former 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 (The Tri-W sewer plant) 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 (sic) 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"

    Additionally, 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, in a June 2009 letter to the California Coastal Commission, the SLO County "Project team," writes, "The Project team, given the clear social infeasibility issue associated with Mid Town (Tri-W project) and the infeasible status of the LOCSD disposal plan [bolding mine], 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."

    I also recently asked SLO County environmental specialist, and Los Osos wastewater project planner, Mark Hutchinson, to, today, put himself in the shoes of the people that were responsible for spending (read: wasting) $25 million and six years on the "infeasible" Tri-W disaster. He just laughed... out loud.

    Finally, out of all the documents the county produced on the Los Osos wastewater project, not one of them -- not one -- is favorable to the Tri-W "project," and, in the end, which was on June 11, 2010, when the Coastal Commission gave final approval for the County's proposed project (that includes an out-of-town sewer plant), the Tri-W "project" didn't even come close to working.

  • June 11, 2010: The date the California Coastal Commission gave final approval for the County of SLO's latest proposed project, that includes a sewer plant east of town, downwind.

    And because the Tri-W project was appealed by its supporters all the way up until that meeting, Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown wasn't resolved until June 11, 2010, nearly six years after it was first published.

    In that time, the person responsible for publishing my story, New Times founder, Steve Moss, died in 2005, and would never know that Three Blocks would prove to be 100-percent accurate, involving one of the most -- if not THE most -- important story in the history of San Luis Obispo County.

    I get the feeling that Steve would love June 11, 2010, as much as I do.

    And, those are my journalism bookends:

    September 23, 2004: The date Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown was published.


    June 11, 2010: The date that Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown was finally shown to be 100-percent right, and Los Osos will, now, never have nonsensical sewer plant in the middle of their beautiful, coastal California town.

    As evident by this timeline, Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown, it appears, changed Los Osos forever.



    • And yet the naysayers will say "hogwash!" You're just making stuff up.
      Sincerely, M

      By Blogger M, at 1:35 PM, January 01, 2011  

    • WTF what happened? this blog was missing in action for three days?

      By Blogger Mike Green, at 12:19 AM, February 24, 2011  

    • Glad to see you are back, Ron. It was eerie to find your blog gone and you essentially incommunicado. It was a shock after almost two months of no new posts to discover the other day that there wasn't even a blog. I'm sure many people would like to know if it was a mere computer glitch somewhere out there or if something's truly afoot.

      By Blogger Bev. De Witt-Moylan, at 10:16 PM, February 24, 2011  

    • That is one completely insane story. Sounds like with all the money and time wasted, they could have had a paid-for plant built many years ago.

      Who exactly is not-running this sideshow?

      By Blogger Preston L. Bannister, at 9:34 AM, March 16, 2011  

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