Editorial: Los Osos sewer project needs to move forward

At long last, the Los Osos sewer project faces a crucial vote by the state Coastal Commission this week.

It may not be do-or-die time, but approval will go a long way toward ensuring successful completion of a project some 20 years overdue.

We strongly urge commissioners to give the project their blessing. It’s time to end years of strife and uncertainty for residents, and to get rid of the septic tanks that are polluting ground water and jeopardizing the Morro Bay National Estuary.

Some background: The Coastal Commission will not be asked to sign off on the project per se. Rather, it will decide whether any issue raised in the many appeals filed against the project is substantial enough to necessitate a closer look. If it decides the appeals have merit, there will have to be another hearing in February, and that could mean further delays.

That would be a disaster.

Here’s why: The project is in line to receive $80 million in federal stimulus funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the form of a $16 million grant and a $64 million low-interest loan.

That’s nearly half the entire cost of the $165 million project, and is enough to shave $37 per month off the $150 monthly bill for capital costs that customers will be charged. (There will be an additional monthly fee of $50 for operations and maintenance.)

To qualify for USDA funding, however, the project must have a permit from the Coastal Commission — and if issuance of that permit is delayed beyond February, it may be too late. The money may be gone.

Clearly, it makes sense to approve the project from a fiscal standpoint — but that’s not the only reason to do so.

Approving a poorly designed, inadequately reviewed project simply to qualify for a price break would be unconscionable, and we aren’t for a minute advocating that the Coastal Commission do so.

We believe this is a sound, well-researched project — indeed, one of the most studied projects in county history.

Since taking the lead in 2006, the county examined several alternatives, surveyed residents and subjected the project to a thorough review and, as a result, revised the initial proposal to make it even stronger.

The project now on the table has been endorsed by a variety of diverse agencies, organizations and individuals, including ECOSLO, the Farm Bureau, Democratic congresswoman Lois Capps, Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy, the San Luis Obispo Unified School District, the California Department of Health, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and many, many more.

But here’s what we find most impressive: The Coastal Commission staff itself — which is often criticized for being overly protective of the environment — is recommending the commission allow the project to advance. The staff concluded that no substantial issues were raised in the appeals, and is recommending the commission make that finding as well.

That’s an excellent recommendation.

There is absolutely no merit to rehashing issues raised on appeal, many of which already have been addressed ad nauseam.

Here are some examples:

Many of the appeals contend that the STEP (septic tank effluent pump) system is preferable and less environmentally damaging than the gravity flow system the county has chosen.

Yet the STEP system is far more complicated to install — requiring placement of 4,000 new tanks in residents’ yards. That would mean digging up landscaping, fencing, even driveways and patios at each and every home. And county officials would have the right to come onto homeowners’ private property whenever needed to maintain the system.

Keep in mind, too, that the STEP system was soundly rejected by the community. In a survey, 70 percent of residents who responded preferred a gravity collection system, compared to only 15 percent who preferred STEP. Another 15 percent were neutral or didn’t know.

That a small minority would continue to insist the STEP system is preferable — and would threaten to hold up the project — is astounding.

The decision to locate the treatment plant on the Giacomazzi site was appealed for several reasons: It will disturb agricultural land; it’s not compatible with the neighborhood; it will disturb archeological resources; and it will detract from the Los Osos Valley Road scenic corridor.

Here’s our initial reaction: No matter which site is chosen, we believe the benefits of the project far outweigh any downside.

That said, the negative impacts from building on this particular site appear to be minimal. For example, while the Giacomazzi site is zoned for agriculture, according to Coastal Commission staff, the portion to be used for the treatment plant has not been farmed for 20 years. And while portions of the plant will be visible from Los Osos Valley Road, it won’t be an eyesore. The county is requiring that buildings be designed to look like barns or other ag structures, and they will be screened from view by landscaping.

Water conservation measures aren’t strong enough.

Quite the contrary. Project conditions require that $5 million be set aside to fund an indoor water conservation program that will include incentives for homeowners to install low-flow toilets, faucets and water-saving appliances.

Keep in mind, too, that the sewer will not lead to an overnight building boom. Undeveloped parcels will not be allowed to hook up to the sewer until there’s also assurance that there’s enough water available to serve them.

The project will place an unfair financial burden on residents.

We find this argument particularly wrong-headed, since delay of the project could result in the loss of $80 million in assistance that will significantly lower payments. That truly would be an unfair burden.

We don’t mean to imply that this isn’t a huge cost for residents to bear. But the fact is, 80 percent of affected residents voted to tax themselves to pay for the sewer.

That’s a powerful indication of the overwhelming desire to put this controversy to rest.

On Thursday, the Coastal Commission has the opportunity to advance the Los Osos sewer project and support the economic vitality and quality of life in Los Osos for years to come.

It’s time to end the debate over a project that already has been thoroughly analyzed, reviewed and revamped, and issue a permit for this desperately needed public improvement.