SLO’s compassion is all hat, but no cattle.

April 22, 2020


Once upon a time, the City of San Luis Obispo did things so smart and forward-looking that the whole country copied its good ideas. Planned growth, smoke-free restaurants and campaign finance limits, for instance.

But lately, the advice Forrest Gump’s mother gave him keeps coming to mind, “Stupid is as stupid does.” A lawsuit filed against the City of San Luis Obispo on March 24 stands as a poster child for the way our city’s leadership has left behind its sense of history, reason, or responsibility.

According to their civil complaint filed in Superior Court, Lori and Craig Gill, along with Lorraine Andrews (formerly Zuiderweg), own houses and ranch land in Reservoir Canyon, just out of town. In 1911, their common ancestor, S.J. Lowe, sold the City of San Luis Obispo the water coming down San Luis Creek in Reservoirs Canyon for two things: $10 and the right to have the city pipe enough water back to the ranch to maintain 30 head of livestock (a drop in the bucket, around 194,400 gallons).

As happens over time with growing ranch families, ranches get divided among generations of descendants. And that is what the Gills and Ms. Andrews have done: divided the ranch and sensibly agreed to split the right to the city-provided smidgen of water, so each could have enough for 15 cattle. But even though the city would incur no costs from the partition, the city simply refuses to approve placement of two separate water meters – by the family – where one now exists.

So the Gills and Ms. Andrews have had to sue the City of San Luis Obispo because city administration simply won’t sign off on them installing, at their own expense, two water meters to replace the one the city installed years ago to measure the water going to the ranch’s thirty head of cattle.

One has to wonder. The cost to the city for the City Attorney analyzing the suit, reporting to the City Council that water law is a specialty – so an expensive specialist from out of county must be hired to respond – and then paying filing fees and ultimately paying for mediation where the city will end up agreeing to the installation of the two water meters by this family, will be immense.

No conceivable harm to city residents could result from letting this family split the 194,400 gallons of Reservoir Canyon water that their ancestor reserved. And, well, it just ain’t neighborly.

Instead, the city has violated the California Constitution’s Article Ten, Section 2 and the Water Code, according to the Gill-Andrews complaint, and will likely be paying the three law firms the family hired to sue the city over water the city already has an obligation to provide the family’s 30 head of cattle. Stupid is as stupid does.

“We are compassionate” signs have popped up around town as part of the official city response to the Covid-19 epidemic. Our bordering neighbors in Reservoir Canyon, at this point, must be feeling that our city’s compassion is all hat, but no cattle.

Stew Jenkins is a San Luis Obispo public interest lawyer who handles real estate law, municipal law and estate planning.

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Could be that the city doesn’t want to get involved in a private party water right division.

More to this story than is being said. There maybe an unspoken agenda, like a desire to acquire the property by the city. Government agencies, with some exceptions, cannot use eminent domain to acquire park lands. Suspicious

Example of why it is best to keep your property’s title free and clear of liens, leases and encumbrances, except for temporary licenses, standard mortgages that you can payoff/refi, and short term leases. Encumbrances that terminate. Save your family future grief.

I am puzzled by the assertions Mr. Jenkins is making in this opinion piece. This 109 year old transaction Mr Lowe made with the government appears to be a viable contract that both parties have not had issue with until now. The quid pro quo exchange of $10 dollars and enough annual water to support 30 head of cattle seems ridiculous at the present, but the fact remains that Mr. Lowe made the agreement willingly for himself and his descendants. How did the government violate Article X, Section 2 of the California constitution if Mr Lowe had bargained his family’s riparian water rights off a century ago? Why is the government at fault for causing litigation costs when the government has fulfilled its end of the bargain for 109 years? The conceivable harm to the citizens will be the precedent that will be set by splitting water allocations which could cause long term litigation costs paid by taxpayers in other disputes. I am not normally a government advocate as I have been taught to never trust the government. As I read Mr. Jenkins opinion I began to wonder why this family is risking the legal costs to install a second innocuous water meter? My guess is that the rewards far outweigh the risks. People do not go out and hire three law firms to wage a legal war on the government because they want to be more efficient in counting 194,000 gallons of water. On a compassionate note I feel for the Lowe descendants. I certainly wish some of my ancestors would have made better decisions 109 years ago too, like buying land in Reservoir Canyon.

I’m impressed with the suggested solutions! Sad that when citizens attempt to play by the rules they are forced into this kind of situation.

As a former resident of San Luis Obispo, I agree with you 100% Mr. Jenkins. I do remember your compassion and kindness. Best wishes for you!

James Sutton

On the facts presented I agree with the writer of this article. Along with many others I have little faith in the direction our city has taken and issues like this are so ridiculous as to drive my opinion of the clowns downtown even further.

Install two meters on the two private property sides of the city meter. Then extend a middle finger to these pathetic bureaucrats who hopefully will loose their jobs as we necessarily trim government due to loss of revenue re the virus debacle. “Never let a crisis go to waste” works both ways.

The City of San Luis Obispo has a cash cow that has not ripened into a license yet, WATER. You can bet that anything having to do with that cow will be met with resistance. Who knows why? That would be something that their Sacramento Law Firm, Goldfinger and or whatever cautions.

Just put your two meters downstream of the city meter. Then when you get the city bill figure out who owes what.

Agreed, seems to be more to the story. Development conditioned on individual water meters? Somebody is worried about something.