After more than four hours of comments by San Luis Obispo County residents both supporting and opposing the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, a divided county Board of Supervisors voted to approve a statement opposing creation of the sanctuary.
Supervisors John Peschong, Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton voted to approve the statement of opposition, while Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill were opposed.
The supervisors’ decision came after more than 100 people commented in front of the board. Residents who spoke in support of the marine sanctuary, which would stretch 140 miles from Cambria to Santa Barbara, outnumbered those opposed by about 2 to 1. Many of those residents see the sanctuary as a vehicle to proactively prevent offshore drilling, while those opposed expressed concern about local control and potential threats to the fishing industry.
Both sides expressed distrust in the federal government. Some said the board’s opposition statement will send a message to President Donald Trump that the Central Coast is open to offshore oil drilling, while others said they didn’t trust the federal agencies overseeing a sanctuary to keep local interests a priority.
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Ultimately, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will decide whether to add the Chumash site to a list of 14 national marine sanctuaries.
Some who spoke requested that the board delay taking a position and work toward a proposal that had more consensus.
Arnold said she agreed with that concept, but “the problem is that right now the current proposal was submitted, accepted and, as we heard last week from NOAA, is a fully nominated proposal sitting in their pipeline.”
This resolution, she said, “says that we oppose the sanctuary at this time.”
She cited concerns about a loss of local control if a sanctuary were designated, a concept challenged by Gibson.
“It’s really not an issue of policy substance. It’s an ideological exercise,” Gibson said. “What we’ve heard here is a tremendous example of selective hearing. There is no acknowledgment of the benefits for a sanctuary status.”
He added: “This is absolutely the wrong time to take a stance.”
Peschong, who wrote an opinion piece against a proposed sanctuary two years ago, said a number of stakeholders were not included in the process and that the “fishing industry has a right to not be run over.”
His hope in passing the resolution, he said, “is to send a message to the federal government that they have rolled over our community.”
Fred Collins, spokesman for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, said the proposed federal designation and the opposition to it “is all about oil.”
Many speakers expressed belief that the sanctuary would fill in a regulatory gap and offer the coast protection from offshore oil drilling. Others said the sanctuary would bring increased tourism and research dollars to the county.
Several Morro Bay fishermen and family members said they feared the sanctuary would put burdensome limits on the local fishing industry and endanger boaters by limiting dredging of the Morro Bay harbor.
Commercial fisherman Owen Hackleman said Morro Bay was one of the most dangerous harbors in the United States until the Army Corps of Engineers began dredging it. He feared the sanctuary designation would interfere with dredging.
“If we don’t continue dredging like we have, people will lose their lives,” he said.
Jeremiah O’Brien, vice president of Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, called the board’s resolution an “incredibly good decision.”
He said fishing organizations supported a sanctuary in Monterey 25 years ago and have come to regret that support.
“They got us to sign on by making promises,” O’Brien said. “Those promises have been broken.”
Before the vote, Compton added an amendment to reaffirm the board’s commitment to Measure A approved by voters in 1986. That measure requires a public vote before the county can approve a permit for development of onshore facilities to support offshore oil and gas development.
Compton suggested the amendment in response to accusations that she and other supervisors were influenced by the oil industry to oppose the sanctuary.
“I can assure you, I don’t take any money from oil. I can assure you, I’ve never taken a penny from oil in my campaign,” she said. “Do I personally want oil on the coast? No.”
Compton said the sanctuary wasn’t the right vehicle for preventing offshore oil drilling and, perhaps surprisingly as a Republican, encouraged people to instead support a bill introduced in Congress last week by Rep. Salud Carbajal, a Central Coast Democrat, that would permanently ban any new offshore oil leases.
“If you really don’t want offshore oil drilling, that’s the best way to get it,” Compton said.
Carbajal said in an interview with The Tribune last week that he didn’t expect his California Clean Coast Act to be passed by a Republican-majority Congress.
After the board vote, Violet Cavanaugh, a member of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and a lifelong resident of Avila Beach, said her group will continue to fight for environmental protections.
“We are not going away, and they just added fuel to the fire,” she said.