Excelaron seeks delay on ruling over oil drilling near Arroyo Grande

The Mankins Ranch in Huasna Valley. Oil wells are proposed for sites on the second ridge behind the ranch.
David Middlecamp
The Mankins Ranch in Huasna Valley. Oil wells are proposed for sites on the second ridge behind the ranch. David Middlecamp 7-11-2011 dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A decision on a plan that would allow oil drilling in the Huasna Valley near Arroyo Grande could be delayed, possibly until next year, when a reconstituted San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors with a different attitude toward growth would be making the call.

As of Tuesday afternoon, nothing was certain. But Excelaron project planner Carol Florence said she would be asking the board for a continuation when it meets to discuss the drilling plan Aug. 21.

Supervisors already have been through one hearing, in May, at which 70 people testified. The county Planning Commission rejected the project in March.

Florence said the county’s environmental impact consultant needs more time to assess information. Requests to county planners to confirm that went unanswered. Senior county planner Kami Griffin said her department has not received a written request for a delay from the applicant.

Florence said she has nothing to do with the length of the continuance. That, she said, is under the purview of the county.

She said that if the proposal undergoes changes, “it is important that the (new) information gets back into the public realm.”

What is unclear is the nature of the new information.

“If the project has been changed significantly,” Supervisor Jim Patterson said, it might have to be recirculated — new public hearings, a new application to the Planning Commission — in effect, back to square one, he said.

However, Patterson stressed, the board, which already has heard substantial testimony on a heavily reviewed project that has drawn considerable public input, is under no obligation to grant a continuance.

They “would have to be significant,” Patterson said of the reasons given for a delay.

Should the extension go into next year, the proposal could come back before a county board that would be friendlier to growth. Currently, Supervisors Patterson, Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson form a majority that is considered environmentalist, with Paul Teixeira and Frank Mecham viewed more open to growth and the jobs it creates.

In January, Debbie Arnold will replace Patterson, forming a different 3-2 board majority that is less receptive to environmental worries. Because each supervisor appoints one planning commissioner, the Planning Commission as well could have a new and different worldview.

Florence laughed when asked whether Excelaron is trying to “run out the clock” on Patterson’s term in order to get a friendlier decision. She said the timing is up to the county and it is not even certain that the county will grant the continuance.

At least one supervisor, Hill, wants the decision made sooner rather than later.

“It’s in everybody’s interest,” he said, to make the decision closer to the analysis, testimony and public hearings, before people forget the arguments pro and con.

Teixeira, in whose district the project is located, declined a request for comment.

Planner Griffin said decision makers — in this case, the Board of Supervisors — “determine whether to continue an item or not. That is not a staff decision.”

“Typically,” Griffin went on, “the length of time a project is continued to is based on what the applicant or appellant has requested, and time available on future agendas.”

At the May hearing, the 70 speakers were divided evenly between those wanting to see the project move ahead and many residents of the valley who said oil drilling is inconsistent with the area’s remote character. Most who spoke in favor do not live locally but hold mineral rights in the Huasna Valley.

The company has proposed drilling as many as 12 oil wells on the Mankins Ranch that would produce a maximum of 1,000 barrels a day. The Planning Commission found the project to be incompatible with the Huasna Valley, citing concerns about noise, aesthetics, odors, spills and fire danger.

Excelaron said the project has been designed to minimize those possible effects.

Many supporters of the project in May wore stickers stating “Solar for Schools,” a reference to Excelaron’s offer to pay $1 per barrel of oil into a fund that would pay for installing solar panels in schools in San Luis Obispo County. They said the project would create jobs and produce a commodity the country needs.

Many residents, wearing lapel pins with big red hearts, said oil drilling would spoil the quiet character of the valley and would reduce the value of their property.

“Would you choose to be next to an oil field?” valley resident Diane Moody asked.