Los Osos sewer hearing spurs concern

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson is calling Thursday’s vote by the state Coastal Commission to hold another hearing on the Los Osos sewer project a minor but worrisome setback.

Following an afternoon-long hearing, the commission voted 7-5 to bring the $165 million project back for a second hearing to look at several specific areas of concern. Nearly 30 groups and individuals had appealed the project to the commission.

Gibson said he was disappointed by the vote but understands the desire of the commission to take a closer look.

“As decision makers who are not as familiar with the project as I am, there is a natural inclination to think that there must be some kind of substantial issue there,” he said. “The bar is pretty low.”

On Friday, Gibson met with county Public Works and Coastal Commission staff to plan how to proceed. The first priority will be to schedule the second hearing as soon as possible in order to tap into a dwindling pot of federal stimulus money.

The county needs to have all of its regulatory approvals in hand before it can apply for $80 million in promised stimulus funds. If the application is filed after the end of February, the money could be allocated to other projects.

“Any delay increases the risk that we won’t get funded because there are only so many stimulus dollars and they are going out the door fast,” Gibson said.

On the positive side, the second hearing will deal with a narrowly focused set of issues. Larger issues, such as the types of collection and treatment systems, are not in question, Gibson said.

Commissioners want more information about provisions for protecting wetlands and endangered species habitat as well as assurances that water conservation measures will be implemented in a timely fashion.

“We are down to the details of the project now,” he said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Chairwoman Bonnie Neely floated the idea of continuing the hearing to next month to give the county a chance to make further refinements to the project. Gibson turned the idea down because any changes to the project on the county level would open it up to a new set of appeals, which would delay it even more.

Another consideration was the fact that, by voting to schedule the second hearing, the Coastal Commission is now the permitting agency for the project and has become a stakeholder in the future of Los Osos, Gibson said.

“With that authority comes responsibility for doing it in a timely fashion,” he said. “They have accepted some measure of responsibility for funding.”