Gibson attempted to ax the public from water debate
February 19, 2015
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson attempted to push forward a vote on a hotly contested water use ordinance during a Feb. 17 poorly attended board of supervisors hearing on planning department priorities.
Throughout this month, the board has wavered back and forth on whether or not to extend a temporary ordinance that restricts agricultural and residential development in North County in order to preserve water in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. A hearing on the proposed ordinance extension is scheduled for next week’s board meeting, head county planner Jim Bergman said Tuesday.
But, on Feb. 17, Gibson motioned to have the board direct county planning staff to start crafting an extension of the ordinance. Gibson called for the vote on the Paso Robles basin ordinance during a hearing titled, “Report on Department of Planning and Building priorities.”
He said the motion was justified and the vote on the ordinance should not come as a surprise to the public. But, the board voted down Gibson’s motion on a 3-2 vote, doing so shortly after Supervisor Debbie Arnold accused him of using a backdoor tactic to avoid public scrutiny.
“The public has not been noticed that we are having this discussion,” Arnold said. “For us to do it today, I think would be a complete disservice to the public.”
Supervisor Frank Mecham currently holds the swing vote on the ordinance since he has voted this month both in favor of and against some type of ordinance extension. Mecham agreed with Arnold on Tuesday, saying that it did not make sense to vote on the issue when it was scheduled to come before the board at a different time.
“I don’t know why we need a motion to do this when we are going to be hearing it anyway in a week,” Mecham said.
Gibson said the benefit of voting Tuesday, as opposed to waiting a week, was that it would give planning staff an additional seven days to get to work. Crafting the ordinance extension is large task that involves preparing an environmental impact report, Gibson said.
He also said that the meeting was properly noticed for a vote on the Paso Robles basin ordinance.
“The public knew we were talking about building and planning priorities here,” Gibson said. “That was as plainly noticed as possible.”
A county staff report on Tuesday’s hearing described it as an opportunity for the board to make any desired changes to county planning priorities. A top county planning priority is implementing the groundwater basin ordinance, Gibson said.
Just last month, though, the board violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, when Gibson did not let the public comment on the realignment of board leadership positions. That meeting, too, was not properly noticed.
Gibson admitted making the Brown Act violation a week later, saying it was a mistake. Many members of the public, though, suggested that it was a deliberate effort to place his ally Supervisor Adam Hill in a leadership position.
Hill cast the only other vote in favor of Gibson’s motion on Tuesday. He, like Gibson, said a crisis exists in the Paso Robles basin and that the county is risking a new wave of development and water extraction in the area if the ordinance is not extended.
The ordinance is currently set to expire in August. As it exists now, it prohibits residential or agricultural development in the basin unless developers or ranchers create conservation projects that preserve an equal amount of water elsewhere in the area.
Arnold, who opposes the ordinance, said the county is choosing winners and losers by keeping it in place. She said that property owners in the basin who cannot afford the conservation projects will not be able to use their property whether or not they have water on it.
Simultaneously, the ordinance appears to be driving up the price of land in the area, especially property with irrigation. Those landowners stand to gain as they will be able to sell their allotment of water to others above the basin, Arnold said.
Supervisor Lynn Compton also opposes the ordinance. She said Tuesday that the regulation takes property rights away from landowners, some of whom live in areas that are not as impacted by water shortage issues.
Mecham indicated last week that he would favor some kind of temporary extension of the ordinance. He said he would not support making the ordinance permanent, but Mecham has often voted with Gibson and Hill on the issue.
The board is slated to discuss the issue at its upcoming Tuesday meeting.