Coastal Commission turns down plan to rebuild Morro Bay sewer plant

The current wastewater treatment plant in Morro Bay, shown in 2006.
The current wastewater treatment plant in Morro Bay, shown in 2006. Tribune file photo

In a daylong hearing, the California Coastal Commission on Thursday denied three controversial San Luis Obispo County development requests, including the Morro Bay sewage treatment plant and two homes.

In a unanimous vote, the commission turned down a proposal to rebuild the Morro Bay treatment plant at its current location near the beach and Morro Creek. The decision settles a longstanding controversy in the community and begins the process of finding a new inland location for the plant.

The hearing created an “unusual predicament” for the commission because the two entities that had originally proposed the sewer rebuild withdrew their support. The Morro Bay City Council asked that the project be denied, while the Cayucos Sanitary District asked that the application be withdrawn.

Morro Bay Mayor Jamie Irons said a denial was necessary to finally kill the project and force the two communities to begin working together to develop a new sewer project. The plant is operated under a joint power agreement between the city and the district.

“It is not your job to mend relations between Morro Bay and Cayucos; it’s my job,” Irons said. “Your job is to give us a condition of certainty.”

About 40 people spoke at the hearing, with almost all recommending the sewer project be denied. A handful, including sanitary district President Robert Ens, asked that the application be withdrawn in order to give the two communities time to agree on how to move forward.

Commission staff recommended denial of the project because of its proximity to the ocean and creek, making it susceptible to flooding, sea level rise caused by climate change and tsunamis. Moving the treatment plant to a new location will add from $12 million to $20 million to its cost, which translates into an additional $12 to $20 a month on the average sewer bill.

Most of the commissioners praised Morro Bay for moving away from an ill-conceived project and proactively tackling issues, such as protecting water quality and preparing for sea level rise. However, chairwoman Mary Shallenberger said she resented the amount of time commission staff had spent on the doomed project and accused Morro Bay of asking the commission to take the heat for denying the project.

Two coastal homes denied

The commission also denied two proposed homes near the beach – one off Cave Landing Road in Avila Beach and one in Pismo Beach.

In both cases, the commission denied the projects even though commission staff had recommended approving scaled-back homes to prevent the applicants from suing the commission for taking their property rights.

One of the homes was proposed by Rob and Judi McCarthy of Bakersfield, who wanted to build a large home and secondary residence on a bluff some 500 feet north of the parking lot for Pirates Cove Beach.

The commission denied the project because of the home’s visibility from the Pirates Cove parking lot and concern over closure of a hiking trail leading from the parking lot to the top of Ontario Ridge.

“It’s just such a large structure on such a prominent piece of land,” said Commissioner Dayna Bochco.

The commission also denied an application to give the development the vested right to have water lines installed to the home.

Finally, the commission denied an application by Vaughn and Mary Koligian of Fresno to build a two-story duplex on raised pilings on Addie Street at the mouth of Pismo Creek. Opponents cited multiple problems with the location, including flooding hazards, visual impacts, and habitat degradation of endangered species.

“This is a very difficult piece of property,” said Gordon Hensley, of the county Coastkeeper group. “A poor real estate investment was made.”