The Cambrian

Cambria doesn’t have the water for proposed affordable housing, residents say in appeal

These are some of the issues behind California’s housing crisis

California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.
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California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.

Two Cambria women have filed challenges to the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s recent approval of a proposed affordable housing apartment complex, claiming there’s not enough water for the project.

Mary Webb and Christine Heinrichs, both active in North Coast environmental and other community groups (Heinrichs is a regular contributor to The Cambrian), are challenging the commission’s claim that the 33 apartments proposed by nonprofit People’s Self-Help Housing for Schoolhouse Lane won’t increase demand for water.

The Cambria Community Services District previously said the state provides few opportunities to deny service to affordable housing. County supervisors will rule on the commission’s approval at an upcoming hearing, estimated by planners to be in April or May.

The apartments would be built near the town’s Santa Lucia Middle School and a similar complex nearby that’s been renting 24 affordable-housing apartments since 1997. The plan includes eight two-story buildings, including a shared community center.

There would be four one-bedroom units, 19 two-bedroom apartments and 10 three-bedroom units.

Most governmental agencies, nonprofits and officials agree there’s a critical shortage of affordable housing in Cambria, which has many vacation-rental and second homes and a lot of retired residents. Housing is expensive in the coastal community, so many workers and others live out of town and commute.

Both Webb and Heinrichs say in their appeals that the proposed project does not conform to the county’s Local Coastal plan.

They said Cambria doesn’t have enough available water for such a project, despite the town’s Sustainable Water Facility. That plant on the services district’s San Simeon Creek Road property does not yet have county or Coastal Commission permission to operate other than during a water-shortage emergency.

Since 2001, Cambria has been under a water-shortage triggered moratorium on new connections, but the moratorium includes exceptions for affordable housing.

Last January, Cambria Community Services District directors approved issuing an “intent-to-serve” letter for another 16 units in the project, bringing the total then to 40 (a number that’s been reduced since then). That letter is a crucial step toward developing any property in the small town that draws water from wells along two shallow aquifers to serve its approximately 6,000 residents and many visitors.

The new project would be subject to the district’s conservation-retrofit measures, meaning the new complex can’t trigger a net increase in water demand. Self-Help agreed to comply with those requirements by purchasing retrofit points in lieu of actually retrofitting enough aging fixtures and appliances in the 1997 apartment complex to compensate for the water used in and around the newer units.

Heinrichs calls such a concept a “paper water creation that misleads the Planning Commission and the board (of supervisors) as to actual water demand.” She said it “challenges reasonable discussion” to believe that “adding 33 residential units to Cambria’s water use will actually reduce water use.”

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