A Creston landowner will be required to pay a $100,000 fine to the Regional Water Quality Control Board after allegedly illegally stripping all vegetation from 200 acres next to Huerhuero Creek on Hwy. 58.
Superior Court Judge Roger Picquet upheld the enforcement action in an Oct. 25 decision, after landowner Haig Kelegian appealed the fine first to the State Water Resources Control Board and then to the courts.
Water board officials found that Kelegian had failed to control erosion from the barren soil on his land, which caused dirt to enter Huerhuero Creek. Sediment in creeks can choke fish, reduce stream flows, and destroy aquatic habitat.
"This is the biggest fine of this type we've seen in San Luis Obispo County," said water board Staff Engineer Jennifer Bitting, who first investigated what she called the "gigantic area" of vegetation removal in 2002 after a citizen complaint.
The Central Coast basin plan for water quality control specifies that "best management practices" must be used to prevent sediment from entering waterways when land is cleared or graded.
The amount of the fine was determined based on a complicated formula spelled out in the California Water Code, Bitting said. The maximum fine is $5,000 a day for each of the 185 days the violation continued, plus staff time. Water board officials carried out six inspections of the property and sent six letters including three violation notices to Kelegian over seven months, before spring grasses eventually covered the land and stopped the erosion, Bitting explained.
Kelegian a casino manager who lives in Newport Coast in Southern California bought the land sight unseen as investment property and hired a local engineering consulting firm to oversee brush removal for fire prevention and agriculture, according to a letter he wrote to the water board. The consultant implemented erosion and sediment control measures in response to water board requests, Kelegian wrote.
"Members of the public, with no experience let alone expertise in these areas, made baseless accusations as to what they believed had occurred on my property," the landowner said in his June 2005 letter.
Responding to the Superior Court decision, Kelegian said in a phone interview, "I damaged nothing. I did absolutely nothing wrong. It's a typical arbitrary government decision. They're an overbearing and over-reaching board that lied and cheated, and it's a total abuse of power. Environmentalists are pushing everybody around."
Kelegian called the fine "totally unfair," and said he may appeal and may also sue the individuals who complained.
"We must discourage landowners from discharging soil to our waters," water board Chairman Jeffrey Young said in a release. "Our board will continue to support our staff's efforts to make sure such projects follow the law and protect the public's waters."
Information about "best management practices" to prevent erosion can be obtained from the Regional Water Quality Control Board in San Luis Obispo or the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service field offices in Templeton or Morro Bay.