The Harbor Terrace project, a 32-acre camping and hotel development proposed by the Port San Luis Harbor District, moved forward on June 17, despite citizen objections. The project has been decades in the making, but new concerns over water availability and increased traffic prompted Avila Beach residents to appeal the coastal development permit, which was unanimously approved by the SLO County Planning Commission in March. Avila developer and business owner, Michael Kidd, filed the appeal April 3.
Kidd, who wore a blue Avila Beach T-shirt, and looked something like a surfer-Santa Claus spoke before the board at the June 17 SLO County Board of Supervisors hearing. He called the project unprecedented and raised questions about the process, because the same agency that applied for the permit (San Luis Harbor District) also approved the environmental impact report (EIR). Kidd suspected that a non-government agency would have received more scrutiny over a project of this size.
“There is a feeling that they got a free pass,” Kidd said.
Supervisor Adam Hill, who represents the 3rd District, which includes Avila, denied that feeling was the reality. After a three-hour hearing, the Board of Supervisors ultimately denied Kidd’s appeal.
The development will be on the north side of Avila Beach Drive, on a site used for oil storage in the 1930s, which became the Port San Luis trailer park in the 1970s. The new site will have 95 RV spaces, some with cabins, as well as 31 hotel units described as “bungalows,” “yurts,” or “cabins.” The project has an affordable component, which includes 35 car-camping sites and 21 hike and bike campsites.
With the addition of the RV sites, the Harbor District plans to remove the old RV parking on Avila Beach Drive. New RV spaces will likely cost $140 per night, according to the EIR. Residents raised concerns over the cost and scope of these RV sites. The appellant, Kidd, said Harbor Terrace will be the largest RV project in the county in 40 years.
“This is a government agency building, a luxury resort,” Kidd said.
He raised three concerns in his appeal: water availability, traffic congestion and safety, and the need for a new community planning document for Avila Beach.
“This is not a case of pro-growth, slow-growth,” Kidd said. “This is a case about let’s get this right. We all have that responsibility today.”
The project would double the Harbor District’s current water use, and although the district has a historic water allocation that would more than accommodate for the new development, locals worry it would add more stress to the drought situation. Moreover, Harbor Terrace is the first of four major hotel developments that have been proposed for the Avila Beach area.
The Harbor District has a yearly allotment of 100 acre-feet of water from Lake Lopez, but the district typically uses only 30 percent of that. The Harbor Terrace project would require an additional 35 acre-feet annually, which still leaves the district about 30 percent of their allotment unallocated. Detractors pointed out that although the Harbor District uses less than it’s allowed to, it would still be doubling use at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown required all Californians to cut use by 25 percent.
“Port San Luis says ‘We’ve got an allotment,’” Kidd said, “But if there’s no water, there’s no water.”
Lake Lopez is currently at around 36 percent capacity. Port San Luis Harbor Manager Steve McGrath said that the project is designed to be adaptable in the case of extreme drought. By the time Lake Lopez is down to 10 percent capacity, the district would only be asked to reduce its allotment by 35 percent—essentially, they would have to do nothing to get to that point.
“I think the biggest difference between us and a residential development,” McGrath said, “is that we can incrementally close down that facility in a way that makes sure we have water for the essential services like fire protection on the pier.”
Residents also brought up traffic as a major issue. Avila Beach Drive is a nightmare during summer weekends and special events, but there’s far less traffic in the winter. To estimate average road use, the county came up with the following protocol: Traffic studies will be conducted on the second Tuesday in May between 3 and 6 p.m.
The equation goes back to the ’90s when the Avila area had about 40 severely impacted traffic days—that number has since swelled to 160 severe traffic days. Still, the board decided that with a few safety modifications and improvements to pubic transit, the impact of new trips from the campsites was acceptable. One staff member said the cost of widening Avila Beach Drive to accommodate peak traffic would be “excessive,” as the current road is sandwiched between a hill and the beach.
The plan calls for two crosswalks across Avila Beach Drive. Supervisor Bruce Gibson, 2nd District, cast his approving vote with the caveat that the Harbor District work with county staff to improve safety on those crosswalks. Evacuation in case of emergency was also brought up.
Kidd’s issue with the Avila Community Plan is that it hasn’t been updated to reflect this project or the three other proposed Avila resort projects, which are in varying states of planning. The Terrace Harbor project has been included in several other county planning documents since 2007, including the San Luis Bay Coastal Plan, but it’s not directly accounted for in the Avila Community Plan, which covers a larger area. Given the scope of development proposed—the 95-acre Avila Point project, the 144-room hotel expansion at the Avila Beach Golf Resort, and the proposed development on the 2,400-acre Wild Cherry Canyon property—many local residents feel that Harbor Terrace needs to be addressed within that larger context.
An area plan could be amended to include or exclude any of these projects, according to county Environmental Specialist Rob Fitzroy, however, in this case, Fitzroy said the San Luis Bay Coastal Plan is meant to supersede the Avila Community Plan.
The board’s vote was unanimously in favor of the Harbor Terrace plan, but Supervisor Hill indicated that future Avila developments may not get the same treatment. Cal Fire Marshal Laurie Donnelly said this was the last project she could support without serious infrastructure improvements.
Contact Staff Writer Kylie Mendonca at firstname.lastname@example.org.