SLO council OKs Laguna Lake conservation plan with $10 million price tag

Forty years of excess silt buildup, coupled with the current drought, have left portions of Laguna Lake dry.
Forty years of excess silt buildup, coupled with the current drought, have left portions of Laguna Lake dry. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo’s Laguna Lake, described as a city jewel, will be saved.

The City Council voted 5-0 Tuesday to adopt the Laguna Lake Reserve Conservation Plan —reviving the effort to restore the lake and conserve the natural species surrounding it. The 10-year conservation plan to manage the 344-acre reserve that fronts on Madonna Road will cost more than $10 million to achieve.

The effort to revive and protect the 100-acre naturally occurring lake is at the center of the effort. The plan also includes adding public amenities: An accessible loop trail, a boardwalk and viewing platforms.

The lake has suffered from excess silt buildup for the last 40 years. Coupled with the current drought, a large portion of the lake is now dry.

Nearby property owners will likely be asked to foot a portion of the bill. The city will soon pursue creating a community facilities district that would assess lakefront parcels as much as $958 annually. Other property owners in the reserve could be charged as much as $389 a year.

Up to 759 parcels would be included in the proposed district, generating up to $2.5 million of the needed funds to implement the plan. The city would pay $4.4 million from its general fund and the remaining roughly $3 million would come from grant funding.

Several residents spoke in favor of forming the district Tuesday night.

“Let me say something you rarely hear,” said resident Jan Simek. “Please tax me…I will gleefully write that check.”

However, others weren’t as supportive of that idea. Thomas Wheeler, who said he considers the lake a valuable resource for the city, said he questioned whether an assessment district was too onerous for people living there.

He pointed out that residents living next to other natural resources in the city — such as Bishop’s Peak — aren’t asked to pay additional taxes for upkeep.

Councilwoman Kathy Smith agreed, saying she would prefer that it be a citywide tax. Ultimately, a two-thirds vote or 67 percent of affected property owners would be needed to pass the proposed district.

Laguna Lake and its surrounding area will now be added into the city’s Natural Resources Program, overseen by Bob Hill, the city's natural resources manager. The plan would include efforts to protect the numerous rare plant and animal species found in the area, continue flood control measures and protect the area’s recreational benefits for residents and visitors.

The lake has long been a favorite spot for wildlife such as ducks and white pelicans as well as a place of recreation such as sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and at one time fishing. The problems at Laguna Lake have been a long time coming — exacerbated by nearby development.

In the 1960s, Prefumo Creek was re-routed into the lake and the southeastern portion of the lake area was excavated and developed — creating what the city calls a “long-term management challenge.”

As silt continues to wash down from nearby hills, the lake continues to grow shallower — making it impossible to use for many of the activities people once cherished it for. A plan to dredge the lake has been tossed around City Hall for years but the high cost prevented it from happening.

“I think you have an opportunity here to leave a legacy,” said resident Paul Bonjour. “You’ve done no maintenance, you’ve done nothing. You need to move forward and do something … not just making plans … we don’t need any more planning.”