At 31 years old, Karen Windeler and her husband bought a double lot with the intention of building what would one day become their retirement home. Windeler is now 62, and she's never been able to build on her property because of a building moratorium.
"I'm retired now, and all my dreams are gone," she told New Times.
In April, Windeler joined five other property owners in filing a petition and complaint against the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) and San Luis Obispo County to gain the right to build on their properties.
The petition states that the county and the district have "prevented lot owners from developing their property under the pretense of a shortage of water emergency to justify the denial of water and sewer services, even refusing to accept applications for service."
In 1986, the district created a waiting list for new water and sewer hookups. The list—which exists to this day—was closed in 1990 in accordance with the county's growth management ordinance. The ordinance monitors the number of homes that can be built in the unincorporated areas of the county during a fiscal year. While the unincorporated areas' growth rate is capped at 2.3 percent, Cambria's growth rate was reduced to zero percent in 2000.
Airlin Singewald, a senior planner in the SLO County Planning and Building Department, said the zero percent growth limit is consistent with the CCSD's moratorium on new water connections due to water supply limitations.
In November 2001, the district declared a Water Code 350 emergency. A water distributor can call the emergency whenever it finds that the its water consumers' demands can't be satisfied without depleting the water supply to the extent that there would be insufficient water for human consumption, sanitation, and fire. The emergency condition, which established a moratorium on building, is still in effect.
There are three wait lists for property owners who are still waiting for their chance at getting water and sewer hookups: single-family residential (with 665 property owners), commercial (10), and multi-family residential (13).
Windeler said she remembers that after purchasing her lot, she learned that property owners had to pay a fee to get on the list.
"They wanted too much money and we thought, 'OK, it's going to be a few years before we could do that anyway,' so we waited," she said.
In 1994, Windeler and her husband contacted a company to help them design their home and estimate development costs. During that process, she said, she contacted the CCSD about getting on the list.
"We were told [by the district] at that time that the list was closed, and I was getting regular bulletins from them, but I never knew that," she said.
After Windeler realized that the CCSD had closed its wait list, she called the county and found out that there was a surplus waiting list. She said she paid a one-time fee of $500 to secure a spot and waited.
"Over the next few years, we contacted them regularly to check the status of our waiting list number, and it kept going down," she said. "So we thought, 'OK someday we'll get a water and sewer permit.'"
A former CCSD employee, who asked New Times not to use their name and who managed the water waiting list prior to 2014, said that people who were on the list didn't think the building moratorium was going to last as long as it did. The former employee also said that as far as they knew, lot owners on the waiting list didn't receive a letter warning them of the building moratorium in 2001.
Lot owners on the list have to pay an annual fee to maintain their position in line. The CCSD website states that the fee is $88. According to district budgets, the CCSD received $98,162 from the "waitlist maintenance fee" in 2016-17 and $61,630 in 2017-18.
Megan Martin, a supervising planner in the SLO County Planning and Building Department, said the last property owner was placed on the list in 2006, and that the list is still on file, pending a change in Cambria's resources.
Windeler said that she called the county a few years ago to check on her status and was told there wasn't a list. She hasn't called since.
In 2017, Windeler and her husband submitted an application to the county for a minor-use permit requesting just sewer services from the district. They proposed trucking in water and putting in a septic system, so they could finally build their dream home. It was denied.
The denial, the long wait, and frustration Windeler has dealt with for more than three decades was reason enough to join the petition against the CCSD and county, she said.
"They essentially cut you off from doing anything on the property, and yet I continue to pay property taxes for the last 30 years as well as abatement every year," she said. "It felt like they didn't want more people there; they were using water as the reason for limiting building."
Senior Planner Singewald told New Times that in order to allow new development in Cambria, the district would have to obtain coastal development approval for its sustainable water facility and lift its moratorium on new water connections. The county would also have to amend the growth ordinance to increase Cambria's growth rate to higher than zero percent.
As for Windeler, all she wants is justice.
"You want to keep the property because of whatever reason, then fine. Pay me for it or let me build on it. I don't have many years left," she said. Δ
Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.