Stricter land-use rules proposed by San Luis Obispo County planners to reduce groundwater pumping in unincorporated areas of the county drew questions and opposition Thursday at a seven-hour county Planning Commission meeting.
The commission continued the discussion, and ultimate vote, on the sweeping changes until Aug. 13, and also Aug. 27 if needed. After its review, the proposed rules will go to the county Board of Supervisors, which must give final approval; no date for the supervisors to hear the amendments has been set.
Among the key concerns voiced by about 20 members of the public Thursday were: a proposal that requires a permit every time well repairs are needed; a vested rights process that allows property owners who prove they’ve made significant investments in new plantings to go ahead with them; and individual property rights vs. government intrusion.
Some commissioners said they realized the level of importance the changes pose for landowners. “This is a heavy-hitting thing,” Commissioner Don Campbell said.
An existing emergency ordinance that requires all new pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin be offset by an equal amount of conservation is due to expire Aug. 27.
The San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission is processing an application to create a water management district for the Paso basin that would manage groundwater use at sustainable levels. Landowners in the basin are expected to vote on whether to form the district in March.
Besides the 790-square-mile Paso Robles basin, the proposed rules would primarily affect the 12-square-mile Los Osos basin and the 27-square-mile Nipomo Mesa basin — three basins that are in decline and exacerbated by the four-year drought.
The proposed rules include requiring a well meter for new development served by an individual well; offsetting new water use with water savings from the same water source; continuing plumbing retrofit requirements that encourage replacing older, higher-water-use toilets and showerheads with more efficient fixtures; and creating a “cash for grass’’ program to offer cash incentives for property owners to replace existing turf with low, water-demand landscaping.
On the topic of permitted well repairs, the commission talked about deleting that wording after agreeing that it was a glaring concern.
“This is not just an agriculture issue, but a rural resident issue,” said Bob Brown, a director of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions. “When a well goes out at 10 o’clock at night I wouldn’t expect to get a permit. What have we created here? This is a mess.”
A few speakers also raised the issue of vested rights, a topic that assistant county counsel Tim McNulty recommended keeping out of the conservation program entirely.
County staff didn’t include vested rights in the proposed conservation program amendments, so everything planted after the program takes effect would have to comply with the new rules.
Staff expressed a concern that the county might be inundated with new vested rights requests if previous approvals for those exemptions were carried over.
Under the existing emergency ordinance for the Paso Robles basin, hundreds of acres of new plantings were exempted using a vested rights process that said if farmers could prove they had made significant investments in new plantings they could go ahead with them.
Planning Commissioner Jim Irving said he’d like to carry over the list of properties already approved for vested rights in that emergency ordinance so they wouldn’t “be left out in the cold.”
Thirty-nine properties have approved vested rights, according to county staff, including some that have planted and some that have not, representing about 1,000 acres in total. Staff didn’t know how much of that 1,000 acres was planted as of Thursday.
Several members of the public said there’s still a need to carry over those rights for those who were approved but haven’t planted yet due to various reasons.