It would be difficult to find a more scenic location for a vacation resort than Avila Point.
The 95-acre site sits atop coastal bluffs next to Avila Beach with breathtaking, panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and coastal areas from Point San Luis to Point Sal. Inland, rolling hills are covered with oak woodlands.
The oil company Chevron has applied to convert this former oil tank farm into a 232-unit resort complete with such amenities as a spa, restaurants and retail stores, a pool and fitness center, workforce housing, trails and open space.
In its literature for the project, Chevron says, “Avila Point has the potential to be an intimate resort retreat that embraces sustainability, luxury and the natural beauty of the coastal setting.”
However, the resort may have a fatal flaw — access.
The property is located in a community served by a single two-lane road that is already at or near its traffic carrying capacity.
Transportation and circulation are two of some 15 environmental quality issues county and state planners must consider before issuing any development permits for the resort.
“This issue related to a single main access road is a topic of much community concern as the community of Avila Beach continues to grow and be built out and more traffic is brought into the area,” states a planning staff report for the project.
I don’t want to prejudge this, but I think that more than anything else traffic will be the critical issue that will have to be addressed. I don’t see how that is going to happen.
County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes Avila Beach
As a result, Avila Valley residents as well as key county officials are expressing doubt that the project will get the necessary permits due to insurmountable traffic and safety concerns.
“I don’t want to prejudge this, but I think that more than anything else traffic will be the critical issue that will have to be addressed,” said County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes Avila Beach. “I don’t see how that is going to happen.”
Diablo evacuation route
Although access to Avila Beach on most days is unhindered, congestion builds on summer weekends and warm weather weekends as Cal Poly students and other county residents flock to Avila’s temperate beaches, which are known for their lack of wind and fog. Special events and whale watching can also cause considerable congestion.
Avila residents say a trip from Highway 101 to Avila Beach — which normally takes five minutes or so — can grow to 20 minutes or more during times of heavy congestion.
County Cal Fire Chief Robert Lewin agrees that traffic circulation is a serious problem. Avila Beach Drive, the main access road, is a dead-end road that ends at Port San Luis.
Widening Avila Beach Drive is considered highly unlikely for environmental reasons. The road is bordered on one side by San Luis Obispo Creek, which is home to a variety of rare and endangered species. The other side is bordered by steep oak-studded hillsides.
Visitors will be shuttled via electric cart to the site to mitigate traffic driving through Avila Beach to access the resort. Emergency and pedestrian access only is being proposed for the village of Avila Beach.
Bill Almas, Chevron manager for future developments
“The impacts on that road are so great, because there is no secondary access, that we believe there can be no additional development,” Lewin said.
Additionally, the county recently approved the 184-unit Harbor Terrace campground in Port San Luis that will add more traffic to the area when it is complete.
Avila Beach Drive has another key constraint. It provides public access to two of the county’s most important infrastructure facilities — Port San Luis and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
The Avila Beach area is directly downwind of Diablo Canyon and would be the area of the county most likely to be affected in the event of a radiological leak from the power plant. In such an event, the entire Avila Beach area would have to evacuate down Avila Beach Drive.
Port San Luis has its own constraints. The California Coastal Act requires that all public beaches and port facilities in the state be accessible to the general public. That means Avila Beach Drive must stay open around the clock.
“A big project will undermine the obligations of the Coastal Act,” Hill said. “We have to make sure that we don’t get to the point where people can’t get to the beach or port.”
Hill believes that a restaurant or maybe a boutique shop is about as much development as could be approved for Avila Point — not a 232-unit resort.
“I don’t know how we are going to fix the traffic problems,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chevron is moving ahead with the planning and permitting process for the proposed resort. The application process will require the approval of the county and state Coastal Commission.
Avila Point resort Chevron has proposed a 232-unit resort with 1- and 2-story buildings. On 95 acres, 60 percent would remain as open space. Public amenities would include a day spa, restaurant, meeting facility, amphitheater, trails and viewpoints.
The application has three main components:
• Coastal Development Permit to clean up the soil and groundwater contamination left behind by decades of oil transportation and storage
• Amendment to the Local Coastal Plan to change the land-use designation from industrial to recreation to allow for the development
• A 9-lot subdivision of the site to allow the various roads and infrastructure improvements for the resort
Of the 95 acres, 38 acres are planned for buildings, roads and landscaping with the rest devoted to open space, said Bill Almas, who is in charge of Chevron’s efforts to redevelop the property. The developed areas of the resort would be built on land already heavily impacted.
The company will design the resort to minimize the use of cars. Parking for the resort would be at the corner of Avila Beach Drive and Cave Landing Road.
“Visitors will be shuttled via electric cart to the site to mitigate traffic driving through Avila Beach to access the resort,” Almas said. “Emergency and pedestrian access only is being proposed for the village of Avila Beach.”
These shuttle amenities, however, do not address the broader problem of access being limited to the narrow, two-lane Avila Beach Drive. Almas said the company will wait until a detailed traffic analysis of the project is completed by the county before deciding how to deal with that problem.
Comparisons to the ‘Big Dig’
As Chevron moves forward on its proposed resort, the county is also in the early stages of updating its Avila Beach area plan — a long-term document that guides land use. It was last updated in 1980.
During that process, the county will examine traffic and other concerns related to not only the Chevron project but others proposed for the Avila Valley.
“It is premature to say more about traffic mitigations as the analysis has not been performed by the county,” Almas said.
On Oct. 27, county planners held a scoping meeting to get input from the community about the proposed resort. It drew nearly 100 people who expressed a variety of concerns, said Ryan Hostetter, senior county planner.
“It went really well,” she said. “People are passionate, but nobody was out of hand.”
As expected, traffic topped the list of residents’ concerns, but residents are also concerned about how the contamination cleanup might disrupt the community.
Fresh in residents’ minds is the massive cleanup that was done in Avila Beach in the late 1990s to remove oil that had leaked from underground pipes, saturating the soil beneath the entire downtown. Heavy equipment and big trucks clogged the town’s narrow streets as several blocks of Front Street were razed, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil removed, and the downtown rebuilt.
Residents named that cleanup the “Big Dig.” Bruce Greene of Avila Beach said he is concerned that another cleanup will cause similar disruption to the beach town.
“During the proposed remediation, they now plan to have a procession of graders and trucks add to the traffic, which will be ridiculous,” he said.
Although decades of activity at the site left it heavily contaminated, Chevron officals say cleanup at the tank farm will not be nearly as disruptive as the Big Dig. Cleanup activities will be limited to the tank farm and trucks and heavy equipment used in the cleanup will use Cave Landing Road to access the site and will avoid downtown Avila Beach.
A final cleanup plan has not been developed, but cleanup activities would be a combination of excavation and transportation offsite, installation of caps and vapor barriers and vapor and groundwater extraction. Although the proposed resort is accelerating the effort, the site will eventually have to be cleaned up regardless to protect health and safety.
An environmental impact report will have to be prepared for the project, which should take about a year to complete, said Steve McMasters, supervising county planner. The entire approval process, including the Coastal Commission, should take about two years to complete.
“This is going to be an exciting and challenging project,” he said. “There are not many brownfield sites in the state next to the ocean that can be redeveloped.”
History of the Avila tank farm
Now called Avila Point, the 95-acre property has a long and storied history.
Built in 1906, it was one of the world’s most important oil exportation terminals.
Owned by Union Oil of California or Unocal for much of its history, the site was the largest oil shipping port by volume in the world during the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, it was a major source of fuel oil for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
In 1997, the tank farm was decommissioned, and the aboveground oil storage tanks were removed by 1999. However, years of oil shipping activities and spills left the property’s soil and groundwater contaminated. This contamination would have to be cleaned up before a resort could be built.
Chevron acquired Unocal in 2005, taking control of the tank farm. Chevron is already cleaning up one site in the tank farm on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. State water officials approved the cleanup plan, using groundwater and vapor extraction wells. The goal is to prevent contamination from leaking into the ocean via runoff or landslides.
Although the oil storage tanks are gone, the site still has numerous abandoned buildings, oil distribution pipes, building foundations, tank pads and other remnants of the oil field that would have to be removed before any development could begin.