Tension is running high in the race for the District 3 seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, with palpable animosity between at least two of the three candidates, and divergent viewpoints on critical issues such as the Paso Robles groundwater basin, air quality on the Nipomo Mesa and the Phillips 66 oil-by-train proposal.
In a meeting with The Tribune Editorial Board last week, the candidates discussed their stances on those and other issues. District 3 encompasses Grover Beach, Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Edna Valley and more than half of San Luis Obispo. Candidates are San Luis Obispo City Councilman Dan Carpenter; incumbent Adam Hill, who is seeking a third four-year term; and former Grover Beach mayor Debbie Peterson.
During the interviews, there was clear acrimony between Hill and Carpenter.
When asked why voters should vote for his opponents, Carpenter said he could think of no reason why someone should support Hill.
“His disrespectful behavior on the dais and the way he treats people is something this district cannot tolerate any longer; it has to stop,” Carpenter said. “I don’t see any reason why anyone should vote for him.”
Hill shot back, saying Carpenter doesn’t have credibility on the issue because he has “alienated himself from all his colleagues and spent years attacking his own city manager.”
“I supported Dan once,” Hill said. “We were all under the impression he was a reasonable person who loves trying to figure out how to get things done, rather than make martyred statements, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Peterson responded more mildly, commending Hill on his dedication to his wife, and Carpenter for his ability to “dig into the facts.”
Both Carpenter and Hill chose Peterson’s dedication to the community as her positive trait.
In spite of the friction between the candidates, all three said that if elected, they would do their best to mend relations among a Board of Supervisors that seems divided along partisan lines, with Hill and Supervisor Bruce Gibson on the liberal side and supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton on the conservative side. (Supervisor Frank Mecham, who is not seeking re-election this year, has historically been the swing vote between the divided board).
“It’s up to us to model the behavior that we feel is most constructive,” Peterson said.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary, the top two vote-getters will go on to the November general election.
Now that voters have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to establish a water management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin, the District 3 candidates were divided on how best to manage the basin.
Hill has previously said he supports state management of the basin because the county does not have the funding or the staffing to manage it properly. Both Peterson and Carpenter contended that the county, not state water officials, should be responsible for the basin.
“We’ve managed it for many years, and I think that given the quality and caliber of the resources we have in the county, this is something we can do,” Peterson said. “I believe it’s their responsibility. I mean water is No. 1 — it’s a very important health and safety issue.”
Carpenter took it one step further and admonished supervisors who would pass responsibility of the basin to the state.
“It’s unfortunate that there are supervisors that are advocating to send it away,” he said. “I think local control is always the best. It was advocated for during the water district election, and there’s no reason to send it away.”
Carpenter said he believed the county already has the capability to govern the basin through its flood control and water conservation district.
Hill countered that, based on the board’s past attempts to regulate the basin, he doesn’t believe the county would be able to pass the regulations to properly manage the basin. He also doubted that residents countywide want their tax dollars spent managing groundwater they don’t use.
“If the flood control (district) is going to do something, it is going to have to be able to manage this basin through metering, monitoring, water rationing and fees,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that people in other basins want to pay for the water problems in the Paso basin. It’s going to have to be paid for by the people who live there.”
Nipomo Mesa air quality
Following on the heels of last month’s decision by a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge to uphold a controversial rule intended to reduce dust pollution blowing onto Nipomo Mesa from the Oceano Dunes, the candidates were divided on exactly what actions could be taken to improve air quality for Mesa residents.
Carpenter’s stance was that there are few things the county could do to improve the air quality, because the dunes will naturally continue to blow dust onto the Mesa, no matter what measures people take.
“We can continue to push back and mitigate with fences and mitigate landscape, but the wind is going to continue to blow particulate matter,” he said. “And it’s unfortunate that the people built out there knowing that the dunes were there, but they (the dunes) are going to continue to move. They are a living organism; they are going to continue to move in that direction. I don’t know really anything we can humanly do to stop it.”
Peterson agreed that the dust is a natural occurrence, but said she thinks there are measures the county could take to improve air quality, such as paving dirt roads.
“I think that it is very important to take every possible action to ensure that the people living on the Mesa have the cleanest possible air,” she said.
Peterson said the county Air Pollution and Control District and Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area have been working “fairly well” together to address the issue. “They’re the experts and the ones who should be working on it,” she said.
Hill upheld his position that the county has been working toward improving air quality, despite resistance from members of the public who worry the push will close the Oceano Dunes off-road area.
“It’s our responsibility first and foremost, especially as members of the air district, to protect people’s houses, to protect the air they breathe,” Hill said. “I don’t think that it is appropriate to suggest that people just need to live with it; or that this is a tradeoff because you live there. There are mitigations that can be done.”
Phillips 66 proposal
In a rare moment of agreement, all three candidates said that at this time they oppose Phillips 66 Co.’s controversial proposal to build a rail spur to its Nipomo Mesa refinery from the main rail line. The spur would allow the refinery to bring in crude oil by rail, to augment the supply that now arrives by pipeline.
The proposal is still in front of the Planning Commission for hearings, though any decision inevitably will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors and probably end up in court. Proponents have said the refinery provides valuable jobs and has a sound safety record, while opponents say that an oil train derailment anywhere along the route could be disastrous.
Carpenter clarified that he would weigh the health and safety concerns of the project against Phillips 66’s vested rights as a property owner.
“I’m not in that position to weigh the health and safety issues against their vested rights, but I am a supporter of property rights, so I would definitely look at that,” he said. “But right now, my formalized position is to oppose it.”
Hill said he finds it unlikely he would vote in favor of the rail spur. He noted the environmental impact report on the project listed 10 Class 1 impacts — the highest level of negative impacts to air quality, water resources and potential emergency services.
“I would say as more people in the Third District live near the rail than anywhere else, it would be hard for me to imagine supporting anything that would put anybody’s health and safety and welfare at risk,” he said. “And looking at where they are now, in terms of the EIR, never before have I voted for any project that had this number of Class 1 impacts.”
Peterson said she has strongly opposed the project for some time, partially because she was told by Union Pacific while she was with the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments that the rails couldn’t support more trains, and later because of the apparent health and safety concerns.
“I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night unless I came out and said no,” she said.