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County sued over water-saving ordinance

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A group of North County landowners are taking their angst over an all-out ban on subdivisions to court. The loose coalition of unnamed citizens retained attorneys Steven Hoch and Christopher Foster of Los Angeles to fight an ordinance that the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors passed in September in response to depleting water resources in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. The attorneys filed suit on Oct. 31, and a case management conference is set for Dec. 17 at the Paso Robles courthouse under Judge Jac Crawford.

Among other things, the ordinance required that discretionary developments include measures to offset any non-agricultural water use, and it forbid further subdivisions of parcels in the effected area until a “level of severity I” is reached. The basin was found to be in level of severity III in 2011, which means yearly water demands are equal to the available resource.

Opponents of the ordinance said that subdivisions help landowners bequeath property to future generations, but their legal battle hinges on the fact that the county didn’t prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) covering the possible effects of the ordinance. Such analysis is required by the California Environmental Quality Act whenever land use plans are altered, but SLO County Chief Deputy Counsel Tim McNulty told New Times the ordinance was exempt from that rule because it limits development and, hence, negative impacts to the environment. An EIR would cost the county upward of $100,000, McNulty said.

At the Sept. 25 board meeting, Hoch spoke against the ordinance, warning that it would leave the county vulnerable to a lawsuit.

“The Class 8 exemption is only used when the project is wholly beneficial,” Hoch said. “That doesn’t apply here.”

Other speakers argued that a ban on subdivisions and development in one area could lead to an increase in unprotected areas, which would impact the environment.

The lawsuit asks the court to set aside approval of the ordinance, demand an EIR, and force the county to pay for the concerned landowners’ attorney fees. ∆

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