In a move that seemed to startle some staffers and members of the California Coastal Commission in San Diego on Oct. 12, the San Simeon Community Services District withdrew its after-the-fact permit application for work to correct decades of alleged Coastal Act violations at the tiny town’s wastewater treatment plant.
So, it’s back to the drawing boards and the discussion table for the agencies that had been debating those issues for more than two decades.
Before district General Manager Charlie Grace spoke at the scheduled hearing, it appeared the district and commission staff and attorneys might have finally hammered out an agreement to resolve the long-running dispute over various actions taken by the district to protect and update the plant, including placing rip rap on the shore.
Instead, Grace told commissioners officially that his board wants to pursue an “interagency and regional approach” to the treatment-plant problem, a solution that ultimately could include county government and a new facility in a different location, a facility that could conceivably be shared with the Cambria CSD and State Parks. (The San Simeon CSD treats Hearst Castle’s waste.)
Later, he told The Cambrian that the district would “probably resubmit our application when we have a good path moving forward. I think the commission may be recognizing that relocating the treatment plant is a huge undertaking for a small community.”
County Supervisor Bruce Gibson also went to the San Diego hearing to speak in support of the district’s new concept and right to withdraw the application, pledging his time and effort “to help make this work.”
He said relocating the plant “is necessary for both social reasons and logistical reasons.” The small CSD “has limited resources with big projects already” underway or in the planning process.
Logistically speaking, San Simeon is “merely 100 acres, constrained by the Hearst Ranch on three sides and the Pacific on the fourth, Gibson explained. Finding an appropriate location” for a new plant will take “regional, multi-agency conversations.”
Some of the surprised commissioners seemed to question if the CSD’s withdrawal was just a delay tactic.
However, Commissioner Erik Howell of Pismo Beach said, “We all want the same thing with the San Simeon problem,” but “where we are at to get to that point is so far apart. I’m thrilled to see … the new proposal. We do need some more time to reach compromises, collaborate and come up with regional solutions.”
The commission’s enforcement arm was requiring the district to make various corrections, consider moving the plant and, as mitigation for damage done, build a bicycle/pedestrian bridge across Arroyo del Padre Juan Creek. The latter would be an investment of more than $1 million that Grace said would be far beyond the small community’s resources.
San Simeon is federally recognized as being officially disadvantaged financially, he told the commissioners, and the cost of the bridge would “exceed the district’s annual revenue.”
The proposed agreement also put a 20-year time limit on solving the plant’s long-term problems, such as replacing the current plant with a new one in a location that’s out of harm’s way in terms of sea-level rise in the future, tsunami or ocean-wave overtopping any time big waves and high tides coincide.
Another dispute continues as to whether the plant should be considered existing development.
Commission staff contends that while the foundation and other elements were constructed in the 1960s, more than 90 percent of the plant’s “functional components that enable a wastewater treatment plant to exist and operate at all in this specific industrial context have been augmented, upgraded and/or replaced” since coastal development permit requirements came into effect in 1973.
Grace and Gibson say the plant is definitely existing development, a classification that helps determine permit requirements.
If the regional suggestion seemed to come out of left field for some commissioners, it also was news to San Simeon’s sister CSD in Cambria.
As of the hearing date, neither Monique Madrid, acting general manager for the Cambria Community Services District, nor board President Amanda Rice had been contacted by San Simeon representatives about the concept for a shared facility to treat sewage.
“I am not aware of any such discussions,” Madrid said in an Oct. 15 email interview.
And while Rice said by phone that she’d shared a similar regional-facility suggestion with her CSD peers and others in the past, they hadn’t ever seemed receptive to the concept.
Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks that includes Hearst Castle, said Oct. 15 that he met with informally, briefly, with Grace some time ago, “but there are no real plans at this point.” While the local parks agency is “evaluating the situation,” Falat said, a great deal more discussion, planning and agreement would have to happen before he would feel confident forming and sharing an opinion on the option.
Gibson said Tuesday, Oct. 16, that “it’s a matter of timing. Coastal staff is more than willing to engage in more discussion.”
But, if the hearing had been postponed to the commission’s December meeting, there wouldn’t have been nearly enough time to complete the talks and the regional-concept plan and report back to commission staff, let alone prepare for a hearing.