Commission delays Los Osos sewer project

By a 7-5 vote, the California Coastal Commission on Thursday concluded that multiple appeals of the Los Osos sewer project raised enough substantive questions to justify a further hearing at a later date.

The vote is a setback to San Luis Obispo County officials, who hope to get commission approval in time to apply for $80 million in federal stimulus money —which would be about half of the project’s cost. Public works officials say they need to apply for the money by the end of February or they will risk losing it to other projects.

Commissioners said they wanted to limit the hearing to specific issues of concern, rather than a rehearing of the entire project. No specific date was set for the hearing, but commission staff was told to make it happen “as soon as possible.”

Paavo Ogren, county public works director, said the concerns the commission has are relatively minor and do not require a complete reworking of the project.

“It’s sort of understandable on a project of this nature that they would want some additional details,” he said. “We’re going to get right on it.”

The $165 million project calls for installing a complete sewage collection, treatment and disposal system in the community of 15,000.

Commissioners identified three main issues to be addressed at the new hearing: the delineation of wetlands on the treatment plant site, a more detailed timeline of the water conservation plan, and more information about endangered species habitat conservation at the Broderson effluent disposal site.

“There are some serious deficiencies in here,” said Sara Wan, a commissioner from Malibu who had originally appealed the project’s approval by the county Board of Supervisors.

During its meeting in Huntington Beach, the commission heard some 31⁄2 hours of testimony on the project from the groups and individuals who had appealed it, as well as from county Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who acted as the project’s main advocate. Appellants questioned every aspect of the project.

“I call my appeal substantial issues and the kitchen sink, because I believe there are multiple, multiple issues,” said Julie Tacker, a longtime activist in the sewer issue and a former Los Osos Community Services District board member.

Gibson urged the commission to find no substantial issue and let the county move ahead with the project that is intended to fix a 30-year-long “environmental disaster” in Los Osos of water pollution caused by faulty septic tank leach fields.

“There is no feasible project more protective of the environment,” he said. “We have arrived at the best project possible.”

Commissioners said they were sympathetic to the county’s need to move ahead but concluded that the project was too big and complex to find that no substantial issue had been raised.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.