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Disagree to agree: Contentious Oceano leadership, advisory boards balk at Supervisor Paulding's proposed "unification compact"

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A politically fractured Oceano temporarily connected in an unintended way over a 4th District Supervisor Jimmy Paulding initiative.

Long an ideological battleground that witnessed bitter conflicts in its community services district (CSD) and advisory councils, Oceano came face-to-face with a draft "unification compact" helmed by the freshman San Luis Obispo County supervisor who eagerly wants the unincorporated town to bury multiple hatchets.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT After past conflicts among Oceano's advisory councils, 4th District Supervisor Jimmy Paulding (left) and his 3rd District counterpart, Dawn Ortiz-Legg (right), started an ad-hoc committee to set stronger standards for future advisory bodies. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • RULES OF ENGAGEMENT After past conflicts among Oceano's advisory councils, 4th District Supervisor Jimmy Paulding (left) and his 3rd District counterpart, Dawn Ortiz-Legg (right), started an ad-hoc committee to set stronger standards for future advisory bodies.

In letters dated Feb. 16 to the members of the recently decertified Oceano Advisory Council (OAC), the current county-recognized Vitality Advisory Council of Oceano (VACO), and the Oceano Economic Development Council (OEDC), Paulding emphasized looking ahead.

"The compact builds on our initial conversations around making a conscious choice not to pursue certain controversial goals in the interim, and instead, to work together around common goals that will result in meaningful and tangible improvements to the community of Oceano," he wrote.

Two of those "controversial goals" pertain to driving off-highway vehicles at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (ODSVRA) and the Oceano Airport—topics that Oceano's advisory councils have disagreed on. Paulding's road to civil recovery hinges on consensus among the three groups to not discuss either issue for the foreseeable future.

"The undersigned parties hereby agree to abide by the attached Code of Civility—and to the extent possible—not to use or participate in community advisory councils ... to engage in unnecessary and unproductive controversial political activity related to off-highway vehicles [OHV] at the ODSVRA or the closure of the Oceano Airport," read an excerpt of his compact agreement.

However, all three groups balked at the draft. The OEDC complained that Paulding's document misrepresented its stance on the airport.

"The proposed Airport Improvements Project is seen as a preemptive move by the county to prevent the future repurposing of the airport's land use," OEDC Chair Nick Alter wrote in his response to the draft. "It is not seen as a benefit to Oceano, particularly in the long term if the land can be used for a higher and better purpose than as an airport."

Members of VACO and the former OAC—two groups whose public fights crested with Paulding's predecessor Lynn Compton "unrecognizing" the latter—questioned the clause about keeping mum on off-roading and the airport.

"We very much appreciate Supervisor Paulding's earnestness, but there is a general discomfort in VACO to sign a document that says other members can't openly and passionately express their views on the airport and OHV," VACO member Adam Verdin told New Times.

Historically, the OAC opposed off-highway vehicle use on the dunes and found continued use of the local airport dubious. Former OAC Chair and current OCSD Board Director Charles Varni added that the advisory council no longer exists, and its body has dissolved into individual residents. Despite the OAC's rocky past with VACO, Varni said that contentious subjects were never immune to discussion.

"We never suggested that people shouldn't talk about certain issues," he said. "I was not comfortable with [the clause], and I certainly wasn't going to sign an agreement like that as an individual."

CIVIL DISCORD Oceano's community services district and advisory bodies are on Supervisor Jimmy Paulding's radar—his recent proposal for "unification" was met with resistance, and Oceano's possible annexation to Grover Beach is on the table. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CIVIL DISCORD Oceano's community services district and advisory bodies are on Supervisor Jimmy Paulding's radar—his recent proposal for "unification" was met with resistance, and Oceano's possible annexation to Grover Beach is on the table.

Talks of unification of a different kind germinated from the rumblings surrounding the compact: the possibility of Oceano being annexed by the city of Grover Beach.

"This discussion was prompted due to Oceano's inability to pay for fire service (the OSCD has initiated LAFCO [Local Agency Formation Commission] proceedings to divest from fire service responsibility)," Paulding wrote in a March 13 email to OEDC's Alter. "The central question is—given its financial problems—whether Oceano would be better served receiving city services (police, fire, public works, water/sewer, parks/recreation, and community development) as opposed to the limited services that the [OCSD] and the county are able to provide."

The supervisor clarified to New Times that he's not confident supporting an annexation until further outreach is done in both Oceano and Grover Beach.

"I'm not pushing anything," he said. "I'm just considering this as an option. It's an appropriate time to have this conversation, if any."

Varni agreed with Paulding about the timeliness of an annexation discussion. He told New Times that there's "never been a better time to look at it." Last year, he was a vocal proponent of rejecting the special fire tax that the OCSD brought to general election ballots for the second time. Voters booted that tax, consequently leaving the CSD to figure out how to pay for continued emergency fire and medical services originally delivered by the Five Cities Fire Authority.

Varni is also an advocate of curbs, gutters, and sidewalk improvements in Oceano and believes that a possible annexation by Grover Beach would address some of the unmet needs of the district. Until then, he's looking forward to data collection to study the impacts of a unification.

"What comes to Grover Beach from Oceano are property, sales, and transient occupancy taxes, a very rich water portfolio, and a town on the verge of a very positive economic potential for expanded tourism and housing," Varni said. "Right now, we're a cash cow for the county and that's been happening for a long time."

But not everyone sees a possible annexation as a good thing. VACO representatives and Varni's fellow OCSD board members Linda Austin and Shirley Gibson took offense at Paulding's framing annexation as an option in the face of being unable to pay for fire services.

"OCSD is run very fiscally responsibly," Austin said. "People who were so adamant about the fire tax of $15 a month are now for this draconian annexation. These people [county officials] have appointed themselves as knowing what's best for this community."

Both VACO members and former OAC Vice Chair April Dury told New Times that Oceano residents can afford to pay for fire services but chose not to. Gibson added that she hasn't heard from Oceano residents who were supportive of a possible unification with Grover Beach. Dury said she witnessed the same.

"No one I've talked to wants to be Grover Southwest or Grover Lite," Dury said.

A city's annexation of a CSD requires a lengthy series of approvals. LAFCO Executive Officer Rob Fitzroy explained that there is a difference between an annexation and a merger. The latter terminates the existence of a CSD altogether while the functions, services, assets, and liabilities of that district are assumed by a city. An annexation, on the other hand, means the inclusion, attachment, or addition of territory to a city or district.

"LAFCOs generally exercise their regulatory authority in response to an application being submitted by an agency," Fitzroy said. "The process would begin when an agency submits a proposal application for a 'merger' to LAFCO."

As of April 7, LAFCO hadn't received an Oceano-Grover Beach proposal yet. It would require a study of operational, financial, and service impacts followed by a LAFCO evaluation based on its existing policies. The entire process could take more than a year to complete.

"The proposal would then be considered and decided upon by LAFCO at a noticed public hearing, in which any member of the public may participate," Fitzroy said. "In general, the merger would require agreement from affected agencies such as the city of Grover Beach, Oceano CSD, the county, as well as support from landowners/registered voters of the affected area."

Portions of Oceano have been under annexation interest since the 1960s. Archived clippings of a 1961 issue of the Arroyo Grande Valley Herald Reporter detail annexation attempts of the same Oceano parcel by both Arroyo Grande and then Grover City. In the late 1990s, the Five Cities Times Press-Recorder recorded a Grover Beach City Council attempt to delete an annexation goal after inciting the ire of Oceano residents—one of whom was Harold Guiton, Austin's father.

"Oceano has a [CSD], (which incidentally was formed primarily to stop the attempts at piecemeal annexation of Oceano), which gives us almost the same status as a city," Guiton wrote in a 1998 Times Press-Recorder opinion piece. "To just ignore our 6,600 citizens and elected leaders and treat us like some second-class crime-ridden bad neighbor is pretty shoddy."

The Grover Beach city officials Guiton faced have changed in the 25 years since. City Manager Matt Bronson told New Times that annexation discussions are still in their infancy, and neither the county nor Oceano representatives have been approached yet.

"We are open to discussing ideas that support our community in Grover Beach and of our neighboring communities," Bronson said. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].

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