Over the next seven weeks, property owners on the Nipomo Mesa will have a chance to vote on whether to pay for construction of a pipeline to bring water to the community from Santa Maria.
The Nipomo Community Services District, which is leading efforts to form an assessment district to pay for the pipeline, will mail ballots to residents by March 23 asking whether they will agree to levy a tax to cover the pipeline’s estimated $25.9 million capital cost.
The ballot period will be open until the close of a May 9 public hearing; a majority of the returned ballots is required for passage. District board members voted unanimously Wednesday to start the balloting process.
Some residents could pay from $120 to $225 a year for 30 years to fund the construction costs, though many others could pay at least double that, depending on the size of their property, type of use and other factors.
The proposed assessment district covers about 8,800 properties.
District officials say the pipeline is necessary to reduce the area’s dependency on its only source of water, an underground aquifer, and to prevent saltwater intrusion — the pollution of a freshwater aquifer by seawater creeping underground and moving inland.
Opponents of the pipeline project have argued that the district has not been forthright about the true cost of the project, including how much Santa Maria will charge to supply water each year to Nipomo; whether the water is reliable during drought; and that the pipeline project will benefit new development and spur growth.
The district’s presentations “are geared to make customers feel comfortable with the amount of tax increase on their property when that is one small part of the cost customers will have to bear,” local resident Arlene Versaw, a member of Mesa Community Alliance, a group formed in opposition to the project, wrote in a statement.
The cost of the water is currently at about $1,450 an acre-foot; however, the Santa Maria City Council will in April consider a proposed 5 percent increase for water and sewer rates. (An acre-foot generally serves two to five households per year, depending on landscaping, location and family size.)
Nipomo has an agreement to purchase up to 3,000 acre-feet a year from Santa Maria. Of that, 2,500 acre feet will serve existing residents and reduce Nipomo’s pumping from the aquifer, with the rest intended to serve infill development within the district.
If property owners approve the assessment district, the district will then seek to raise water rates to cover the costs of the deliveries from Santa Maria, at which time residents affected by the rate increase would have a chance to vote against it.
The rates could increase by about 10 percent for the average customer, which is above and beyond a rate increase the district board approved last fall, said District General Manager Michael LeBrun.
Mesa Community Alliance members also dispute the district’s claim that the pipeline is necessary to prevent seawater intrusion from occurring.
District officials have pointed to an instance in 2009 where a sentry well in Oceano showed indications of seawater intrusion.
The Oceano Community Service District board, however, recently approved a letter that takes issue with the information Nipomo officials have provided the public, noting the well was in poor shape in 2009 and has not showed similar characteristics since then.
The board Wednesday also approved requests by owners of about 30 properties to increase or decrease their assessments based on whether the owners intend to develop their properties in the future.
The requests included two from Blacklake Golf Resort to increase the assessment for both the golf course and the clubhouse to possibly eventually develop 60 suites, 60 hotel rooms, and 65 single-family homes. Local real estate developer Rob Rossi is listed as the president/owner on Blacklake Golf Resort’s website.
Pat Eby, a Mesa Community Alliance member, argued that allowing potential developers to increase their assessment rates unfairly gives them more influence over the ballot assessment vote.
District general counsel Jon Seitz said that county approval is necessary for any development to occur.