SLO County supervisors reject rail spur project
March 14, 2017
The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to shoot down Phillips 66’s Nipomo rail spur project. The vote brought an end to a long series of county hearings, but the dispute over the project may continue to play out in court.
On Tuesday, supervisors Bruce Gibson, Adam Hill and Lynn Compton voted to uphold a SLO County Planning Commission decision to deny the project. Supervisor Debbie Arnold cast the lone dissenting vote, which likewise was the lone vote in support of Phillips 66’s plan.
Phillips 66 has been seeking permission to build a rail spur so that crude oil currently delivered by pipeline can be transported to the Nipomo Mesa refinery by train. Project plans call for a maximum of 150 trains a year to pass through SLO County to the Mesa refinery. Each train would consist of up to 80 railcars, which could each transport about 27,300 gallons of oil.
The project has faced fierce opposition from local residents, as well as environmental activists. On multiple occasions, activists descended upon San Luis Obispo from across California in order to protest the project. When the board of supervisors finally voted down the project, the audience inside the board chambers applauded.
Compton, a conservative supervisor whose district includes the Nipomo Mesa, said during Tuesday’s hearing that the project could generate pollution and that her constituents have genuine concerns about safety issues, such as the possibility of a train derailment, oil spill or fire. Compton also faulted Phillips 66 for not doing more to engage the community and assuage residents’ fears.
“If I were to vote for this project and grant one or both of the appeals, I’d be voting expressly against the concerns of the neighbors that are most closely impacted by the project — those that live near it,” Compton said. “Those are the ones that I believe I have the most responsibility to listen to. Their concerns, whether you agree with them or not about the risk, are real concerns to them.”
Last April, the county planning commission voted 3-2 to reject the rail spur project. Phillips 66 responded by appealing the ruling to the board of supervisors, but also by filing a lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleged the planning commission misapplied county land use rules in designating a location to be an environmentally sensitive habitat. Attorneys for Phillips 66 argued the planning commission made the designation after the rail spur project was already accepted, violating a land use ordinance deadline and wasting the company’s time and money.
Despite voting against the project, Compton, too, said it was unfair to make the environmentally sensitive habitat designation so late in the planning process.
Prior to voting, Hill responded to Compton’s concern by saying it is okay that questions linger over the validity of the sensitive habitat designation.
“We should never feel too certain about everything that we decided on,” Hill said. “But ultimately, I think this is the right decision, and I’m glad to support it.”
Supervisor John Peschong recused himself from the hearing on the rail spur project because, in 2015, his consulting company received $262,000 from Phillips 66. Had there been a 2-2 vote, the planning commission decision to deny the project still would have held.
Now that the board hearings are complete, Phillips 66 can resume its legal battle with the county over the project.