Editorial: Sewer plan needs quick turnaround

It was a disappointment — though not necessarily a shock — when the state Coastal Commission failed to give the Los Osos sewer project its stamp of approval last week.

For a project that’s been delayed so long, another postponement may not seem critical, except for one factor:

$80 million in federal stimulus funding from the USDA is at stake.

To have a good shot at that money, county officials hoped to apply by next month. But to do so, they needed a permit from the state Coastal Commission.

Now, it appears issuance of that permit could be at least a couple of months away, which blows the February goal.

Here’s the reason for the delay: By a 7-5 vote, commissioners decided that three issues raised by appellants deserve a closer look.

That means there must now be additional study of a proposal that’s already one of the most scrutinized public works projects in county history. Also, the project will have to go back to the commission for an additional hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

We disagree with the commission’s decision to postpone issuance of a permit and engage in further study of the project. But now that the choice has been made, it’s imperative that the commission moves forward without delay.

It’s encouraging that the Coastal Commission expressed sympathy about the county’s predicament — and directed staff to proceed as quickly as possible. But given state-ordered furloughs and other budget cuts affecting state agencies, that won’t be easy.

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Katcho Achadjian — who sits on the Coastal Commission — requested a couple of times that the project be placed on the commission’s February agenda. He was told that would not be possible, though the project could possibly return to the Coastal Commission in three to six months.

Three months might work; six months could be too late.

While Sept. 30 is the absolute deadline for applying for the USDA funds, the money could be gone by then. Without that funding, residents of Los Osos will miss out on grant and loan revenue that would reduce their financial obligation by $37 per month.

Given the essential nature of the project, we hoped the USDA might hold the funding in reserve, on condition that the permit is in hand by Sept. 30.

But county officials say there’s little chance of that.

“That could be penalizing another project that’s ready to go,” said Achadjian.

That makes it all the more critical for the Coastal Commission to make the review a top priority.

If it truly is impossible to place the item on February’s agenda, then hear it in March. And if that agenda is too crowded — dare we suggest it? — hold a special session if that’s what it takes to get this resolved in a timely manner.

We understand that the Coastal Commission is cautious in granting development permits, especially for a project of this size and scope.

But if it truly wants to fulfill its mission of protecting and preserving California’s coastline, it will act speedily to put an end to an environmental nightmare in Los Osos, while at the same time cooperating with the county’s effort to make the project as affordable as possible.