At its regular board meeting on Dec. 15, the Nipomo Community Services District (NCSD) voted to sue San Luis Obispo County for lifting planning restrictions in Summit Station, a rural area of about 150 people located in greater Nipomo. Days later, Jon Seitz, the NCSDâ€™s SLO-based attorney, said he was in the process of drafting a pleading, to be filed by the first week of January.
The NCSD chose to pursue legal action just one day after the County Board of Supervisors voted to lift the 12-year building ban on the 930-acre area. The ban kept Summit Station residents from typical rural zoning activities â€” such as subdividing and the building of secondary units â€” because its wells were drying up during a water shortage. In exchange for suppressed land rights, Summit Station residents were allowed to tap into the NCSDâ€™s water system.
By some estimates, lifted restrictions could allow the area to grow by as many as 230 homes.
General Manager Michael LeBrun said the NCSD wants to sue because it believes the environmental report that led to the Supervisorsâ€™ decision is inadequate.
â€œIn the report, the county said, â€˜We canâ€™t mitigate water resource impacts. Weâ€™re not in power,â€™â€? he said. â€œBut the county can mitigate these impacts. They are the planning authority. The NCSD doesnâ€™t have planning power.â€?
Groundwater is in short supply on the Nipomo Mesa, and has long been a source of contention between local and county leaders.
LeBrun had hoped the county would require Summit Station residents to use outside water for new housing projects if the ban was lifted, but supervisors denied the request. In a recent separate vote, the Board lowered the official severity level of the regionâ€™s water shortage.
â€œTo me itâ€™s the definition of shortsighted,â€? LeBrun said. â€œWe take exception to them saying they wonâ€™t mitigate, and that increased property taxes and temporary construction jobs will override the environmental impact. More homes would require more water and further the loss of water in our main supply wells on the Mesa.â€?
Nipomo recently contracted to receive secondary water from Santa Maria, but that option awaits the construction of a pipeline under the Santa Maria River bed.
Fourth District Supervisor Katcho Achadjian pointed out that Summit Station residents still need the NCSDâ€™s approval to use its water for new construction, since they have no alternative. He worries the addition of a lawsuit will slow the areaâ€™s already labored water-use negotiations.
â€œI think itâ€™s possible things have been blown a bit out of proportion now,â€? he said.
Achadjian said the Board was aware of a possible lawsuit before it voted on lifting the ban, because Seitz informed them in advance.
â€œI for one wasnâ€™t going to make a decision based on the threat of a lawsuit,â€? he said. â€œWe still have to do what we think we should. We decided the rights of the community should be equal once you have a permit to build. Itâ€™s not fair to give them a restriction their neighbors donâ€™t have.â€?
Thatâ€™s a concept LeBrun agrees with, but he worries the Boardâ€™s vote will set a dangerous precedent for future building projects that overlook environmental damage.
â€œWe have to stress that weâ€™re not suing Summit Station,â€? he said. â€œWe support equal planning standards. But we have to protect our resources.â€?
Andrew Parker is a staff writer for the Santa Maria Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.