In the three years since a group of Nipomo Mesa residents assembled to oppose Phillips 66 Co.’s oil-by-rail proposal, they’ve seen their golf resort community nearly double in size.
Eucalyptus trees have been felled and the land graded to make way for the next-to-last major phase of development at Trilogy at Monarch Dunes, where 242 homes will be built not far from the Phillips 66 Co. refinery.
Now, the same San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission that in January approved a permit to continue adding new houses will on Wednesday consider the oil company’s request for its project — to build a rail spur that would allow the company to bring in three 80-car trains a week, each train hauling 2.2 million gallons of crude oil.
The residents say the two types of development — homes and train cars of crude — are completely incompatible.
“The county Planning Commission has over the years encouraged development in Nipomo,” said Laurance Shinderman, who handles media relations for the Mesa Refinery Watch residents’ group. “And all of a sudden the same Planning Commission would be pulling the rug out from their prior commitment to development here for the singular interest of one company, Phillips, as opposed to the interest of the entire community. I just think that would be a shoddy game plan.”
Phillips 66 officials have portrayed a different scenario in past comments. (A company spokesman declined to comment Tuesday, saying they are busy preparing for Wednesday’s meeting.)
They have said the project would benefit the local and regional economy during construction, by using a majority of local construction workers and buying materials in the area, and later by adding eight to 12 new employees and likely paying more in property tax.
In addition, they maintain the project will enhance the competitiveness and vitality of the refinery by increasing its access to crude markets across North America that are available by rail, according to a statement of overriding conditions in the project’s environmental documents.
Both sides are gearing up for the eighth daylong hearing Wednesday, when the Planning Commission may vote on Phillips 66’s plan to add a 1.3-mile spur that would connect the Nipomo Mesa refinery to the main rail line.
The Planning Commission could be leaning toward approval — a vote to deny the project failed in a 3-2 vote in May. But it’s expected that any decision by the commission will be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors and could end up before the California Coastal Commission, or even in court.
The Planning Commission has heard from hundreds of speakers during its previous seven days of hearings on the plan, and received a deluge of letters from around the state. It’s probably safe to say the commission has heard almost every argument that could be made against the project — but some of those opponents don’t believe all of the decision-makers have taken them to heart.
“The Planning Commission hasn’t talked about the land use issue — they are supposed to ensure consistent land use,” said Yvonne Williams, former board member of Monarch Dunes’ Central Coast Maintenance Association. She points to the county’s land use policy, which says vacant area on the refinery property provides a desirable buffer from nearby agricultural and residential uses.
“The only thing that can help the buffer issue is not having the project there to take up half of the buffer area,” she said.
Planning staff has added a requirement that Phillips 66 build an earthen berm to reduce views of the rail spur and trains from Highway 1 and other public areas. Phillips 66 officials said they would not object to a berm that’s higher than 25 feet, but planning staff has said doing so would “result in an unnatural landform that would actually increase visual impacts.”
Shinderman believes the berm isn’t tall enough and wouldn’t block views for the residential area, which sits as much as 285 feet above sea level.
The Mesa Refinery Watch group remains deeply concerned about air-quality impacts, including diesel particulate emissions from locomotive engines that would exceed daily thresholds set by the county air board.
“They are kind of undervaluing the fact that we are one of the dirtiest places in all of California,” said Paul Stolpman, former director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Atmospheric Programs. “Our exposure to fine particles is far worse than anything in L.A. or elsewhere in San Luis Obispo County. You’re exacerbating an already bad situation and that really hasn’t been taken into account.”
The managing partner for the Monarch Dunes development also opposes the project, for air quality and other reasons. In 2014, an attorney for Monarch Dunes LLC, managed by Shea Homes, wrote to urge the project’s environmental impact report be denied, saying thousands of Monarch Dunes residents would be impacted by potential spills, fire, derailments and unavoidable air-quality impacts.
At build-out, the development will have 1,320 homes, along with commercial space and a resort hotel.
Finally, the opponents question the basic need for the project: whether crude oil supplies are really dropping. They point to data showing that Central Coast oil production increased from 2005-14, and numerous projects in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties that could increase local supply.
Opponent Sam Saltoun argues that importing oil by rail could displace local supplies and result in regional job losses, impacting other businesses and local governments that benefit from employee spending and tax revenue.
But Jim Anderson, maintenance superintendent for Phillips 66, said at the Sept. 22 Planning Commission meeting that the data does not show the more recent collapse in crude oil prices and a drop in production on the Central Coast.
“This drop in local production ... has resulted for us in fewer contractors and fewer employees,” Anderson said. “An employee who spoke (at a previous hearing) has had to move to a different location. Things like that are happening.”