SLO County policy changes under fire
July 28, 2014
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
San Luis Obispo County planners are attempting to strengthen a highly contested section of the county general plan that allows officials to restrict private land and water use in times of drought and other resource shortages.
The county Resource Management System (RMS), currently under review by the planning commission, contains a package of updated regulatory guidelines that are reviving debate over drought issues in the greater Paso Robles area. Proposed changes to the planning guidelines have implications, though, throughout the county and could also alter residential development.
Though the county does not have jurisdiction over highway interchanges, it could, under the proposal, designate areas with insufficient interchanges as being under level 3 resource severity. That designation would allow the board of supervisors to enact development moratorium in communities with deteriorating interchanges.
For instance, if the board were to declare the highways 101 and 46 interchange a level 3 resource, it could enact a moratorium on development in Templeton.
During the all-day discussion of the proposed RMS changes, SLO County Planning Commissioner Eric Meyer said these policies could be used to restrict development and to encourage people to ride bicycles rather than cars. Meyer is also on the San Luis Obispo County Bicycle Coalition Board.
“Sometimes, by widening roads we are just creating traffic and encouraging more intense development,” Meyer said. “Maybe we should be allowing roads to fail, because that road failing means that areas kind of done to some degree.”
The RMS, which comprises a section of the county’s general plan, instructs the county board of supervisors to institute urgency measures to curb existing or anticipated resource shortages. The RMS monitors water supply, wastewater disposal, roads, schools, air quality and parks and rates their depletion on a 1 to 3 scale.
When a resource reaches level 3 severity, as recently occurred with the water supply in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, RMS guidelines within the general plan call for the supervisors to implement regulations like land and water use moratorium. The supervisors followed suit a year ago when they enacted an urgency ordinance banning all agricultural and residential development in the basin that is not accompanied by water conservation projects equal in size.
Although the supervisors adopted the urgency ordinance, they did not agree on a key component within it. The supervisors deadlocked over a 2:1 water offset policy recommended by county staff.
If enacted, the 2:1 offset policy would mean that new developments in the Paso Robles basin must be accompanied by conservation projects that save twice as much water as the new crops or houses use. Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill supported the proposal, but supervisors Debbie Arnold and Frank Meacham opposed it.
The board settled instead on a 1:1 policy. The 1:1 mandate still requires people desiring to make use of their property to retrofit existing homes elsewhere in the basin or to purchase existing agricultural land and rid it of farming activity.
Despite the board agreement on a 1:1 policy, county planners are now recommending that the supervisors adopt a 2:1 policy in the updated RMS. The policy could affect all areas under level 3 drought designations.
In addition to the Paso Robles basin, which spans much of North County, the Los Osos and Nipomo Mesa communities also have level 3 groundwater shortages. Other communities, like Cambria, are teetering with level 3 designations.
When the planning commission held a hearing on the RMS revisions on Thursday, one public commenter, Richard Margetson, argued for even stricter measures in Los Osos. Margetson suggested that a 4:1 water conservation to consumption policy might be needed in the community.
With the addition of Caren Ray to the board of supervisors, majority support could exist for a countywide 2:1 policy in drought stricken areas.
But, Arnold has already indicated that she will oppose the measure. She said the 2:1 offset makes unreasonable demands of property owners.
“You’re going to have to go retrofit things until you have negative water usage in order to use your property,” Arnold said.
Arnold also disputes the process in which the RMS update is occurring. At last week’s board of supervisors meeting, she questioned why staff is conducting the RMS revision at the direction of a previous board of supervisors.
The board last instructed staff in 2009 to revise the RMS. Two supervisorial seats have changed hands since then.
County Administrator Dan Buckshi responded to Arnold by saying that the county may still follow policies dating back to 1850 and that staff responds to board instructions until directed otherwise.
In addition to the water offset policy, staff revisions to the RMS call for mandatory metering of wells in level 3 groundwater basins. Planners suggest that the board adopt a guideline requiring meters on all new or replacement wells and requiring that the owners of the wells report their water usage to the county.
The board majority has already voice support for enacting such a policy in the Paso Robles basin.
Many property owners, though, oppose the proposal. Planning commissioner Don Campbell said Thursday that the board chamber would be overflowing with people when the county tries to meter farmers’ wells.
Outside of water management policy, planners proposed one major change to the RMS. Staff suggested including freeway and highway interchanges as a type of depleting resource that the county would monitor.
The planning commission spent several hours Thursday combing over details of the revised RMS. It did not complete its review of the document, though.
The updated RMS will return to the planning commission on September 11 before going to the board of supervisors for final approval.