The biggest infrastructure project in recent North Coast history has taken a long-awaited turn by a new Morro Bay City Council majority—and the remaining members of the old guard aren’t mincing any words in voicing their displeasure.
The hotly contested project is likely to be scrapped by state regulators soon anyway, but the existing wastewater treatment plant construction project was preemptively extinguished by the council in its first substantial vote since new members took the reins early last month. The Cayucos Sanitary District soon followed suit.
At a special Jan. 3 public meeting, the council narrowly passed in a 3-2 vote a resolution to support a California Coastal Commission recommendation to deny the project, which proposes constructing a new facility at its current location just inland of the beach and upcoast from Morro Rock.
It’s been a project years in the making, with the Regional Water Quality Control Board setting a March 2014 deadline for the city and Cayucos to upgrade their plant or face penalties.
Morro Bay hired three private consultants to help with the project through an agreement with the Cayucos Sanitary District. But now Morro Bay has backed out, and the new council minority—Nancy Johnson and George Leage, who have fervently advocated keeping the plant where it is—warn that litigation could now be on its way from their neighbors to the north. No representatives from Cayucos attended the meeting.
In the end, the council also voted to “suspend” its contracts with the three consultants, Coastal Commission lobbyist Susan McCabe, Project Manager Dennis Delzeit, and consulting firm Dudek.
The original plan of action was to terminate their contracts, but Mayor Jamie Irons broke with Councilman Noah Smukler and new Councilwoman Christine Johnson on that motion, instead electing to suspend the contracts until Cayucos had a chance to weigh in at its next meeting. He was able to gather enough support from both for the suspension.
City Attorney Rob Schultz later explained to New Times that there’s little difference as far as the city’s concerned between the two distinctions, as the city is a private entity in the contracts, and following a letter his office sent out Jan. 4, none of the contractors will be able to invoice the city for any more work.
McCabe was contracted with the city for a total of $155,000 in Commission lobbying services, for which she’s invoiced the city for $144,417 to date. Similarly, Delzeit was capped at $235,000 for services, for which he has been paid $197,145. Dudek was limited to $455,642 for drafting the project’s alternatives analysis, of which it has collected $430,762. Schultz noted that the city hasn’t received invoices for the month of December.
The Cayucos Sanitary District, in response to the Morro Bay meeting, voted 5-0 on Jan. 7 to withdraw its application from the Commission, as well as suspend its consultants.
The moves came just days before the commission planned to turn the current project down at its Jan. 10 meeting in Pismo Beach. According to the commission’s latest staff report, the current site is located in a tsunami run-up zone, as well as an area that could be inundated with water following a flood of Morro Creek. Secondly, a wastewater treatment plant isn’t a compliant land use with the local coastal program and the Coastal Act—the commission’s guiding legislation. The report also cited significant public viewshed issues.
The commission’s staff report leaves little question about how the regulatory body will rule.
The existing plant, built in 1954, hasn’t been upgraded since the early ’80s.
The Jan. 3 Morro Bay City Council meeting was packed with about 100 very vocal residents, the vast majority of which looked to the new council majority to make good on campaign pledges to push for a new, relocated project. Of the nearly 40 residents who spoke before the council, only three were for keeping the plant where it is, citing the money already spent and increased costs to residents for relocating it.
According to the commission report, moving the plant to its most viable alternative, the Righetti site just outside city limits near Highway 41, could cost roughly $39 million, and could be developed in five years. In comparison, rebuilding the plant at the current site would cost some $27 million and take three years to complete, according to the latest estimates.
The city—which pays 70 percent of the costs to Cayucos’ 30 percent—originally claimed that relocating the plant would likely cost each resident an additional $100 a month. But the latest figures released by the commission put that figure closer to $10 a month. Many residents told the council the cost is worth it.
“I don’t have money to flush down the toilet,” said resident Amy Burton. “But as a taxpayer, I will not regret paying my fair share for a better plant that will last this community well into the future.”
Citizens also made it clear that they disapprove of the money spent on private consultants for the project, the limits of which have mostly been spent to date.
“Way too much money has been spent on consultants and not to getting our sewer plant built,” said resident Dorothy Cutter.
“It’s not a problem to dismiss consultants—it happens all the time,” said Michael Lucas, a former city planning commissioner who voted against the project in 2010 and—along with the other four commissioners—survived an ouster attempt by former Mayor Bill Yates for their dissent on the project.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being the running joke of the Shredder,” said resident Karen Crowley, referring to the New Times’ columnist’s jabs at the city for McCabe’s expensive contract. “I just don’t think that’s the way we want our town portrayed—I know the Shredder is the Shredder, but any press is bad press.”
Nancy Johnson later dismissed the comments.
“The speakers here tonight do not represent the majority,” she said, adding that she disagreed with the entire premise of the special meeting and its resolutions, which she said shouldn’t have gone down without the participation of Cayucos, a contention with which Leage agreed.
“It doesn’t go along with the good relationships we’re trying to have with Cayucos,” he grumbled. “We’re not going to change [the commission’s] mind. They’re going to do what they want to do.”
“The importance of these resolutions is that everything is still going forward as if it were the previous council,” Councilman Smukler countered. “It’s important for us on behalf of the citizens to come up with a clear statement to the commission and city staff.”
In the end, the motions concluded with a split vote.
“Since it would appear we’re starting over again with a new plant and a new location, it is impossible to know how this would have really ended up,” Nancy Johnson said in a prepared statement to the council majority following the final vote. “After this meeting, for better or worse, the three of you will own this project.”
Irons and City Manager Andrea Leuker will make a brief presentation about the city’s decision before the commission—a presentation Nancy Johnson declared she refused to participate in—when they discuss the issue at a Jan. 10 meeting at the Vet’s Hall in Pismo Beach.
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.