- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT: Nearby residents say the two 4-acre composting sites proposed right outside of San Luis Obispo near Orcutt Road (one pictured, right) are too close to their homes (pictured left) to avoid negative impacts.
As San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission members consider a proposed green waste composting facility, residents are raising a stink, showing determined opposition at one meeting and planning for more at the next.
When the Planning Commission discussed the project at its Feb. 27 meeting, the room was overflowing with concerned residents from nearby neighborhoods who came to voice their issues with the proposed project. So many people showed up that there wasn’t enough time to hear everyone speak, prompting the commission to continue the hearing to March 27. There, those who didn’t speak will have a chance to, and planning department staff will be able to identify pieces of the project that needed clarification or additional analysis. While some looming questions may be addressed—including whether the project would comply with various zoning classifications and other existing codes, as well as a better understanding of prospective impacts—there will undoubtedly be more questions to come.
The proposed facility consists of two 4-acre composting areas on the 1,100-acre cattle ranch owned by the Perozzi family, who’ve owned that land for 100 years. The conditional-use permit that’s up for approval identifies a maximum of 150 truck trips and an intake of 300 tons a day. Yard clippings and manure are included; food waste isn’t. The facility will only accept waste from licensed contractors and businesses, and won’t be accessible to residents who simply did a weekend of yard work. The proposed size of the project is what initially alarmed people, but Ron Rinell, owner of Bunyon Brothers Tree Service and one of the applicants, said that the project would likely never grow to the full size permitted, but they applied for that capacity anyway to allow room for future growth if circumstances ever changed. That, and the truck trips and tonnage were a very rough ballpark figure. Rather, because the facility won’t be able to accept waste from city green waste operations, which will soon be accepting food waste, Rinell estimates the impact would be more along the lines of 25 to 35 truck trips per day.
But that exact uncertainty, and the potential for foot-in-the-door permitting, is what has area residents worried. Mary Lou Johnson, a real estate agent who lives on Huckleberry Lane off Orcutt Road, has been one of the more vocal residents in the mix. The project would sit approximately a half mile from her backyard, she says, close enough that she worries she would smell the odors of the composting organic materials.
“It’s a good idea, but it’s in the wrong location,” Johnson told New Times, underscoring a general issue at hand: People understand the need for such a facility in modern times, they just don’t want to see it anywhere near them. Because it’s so close to residential areas, and because of the ambiguity she and others feel about potential impacts, Johnson wants more detailed studies done—even an Environmental Impact Report, which planning staff said wasn’t necessary because impacts would be minimal and mitigatable. Traffic, odor, noise, and potential harm on property values have residents in a huff, enough so that Johnson said some residential groups are aiming to get 400 to 500 people at the March 27 meeting.
This response has Rinell a bit baffled and quite frustrated.
“I would have never, ever started this project if I thought I was going to offend so many people,” Rinell told New Times, while standing on a hill on the ranch and looking out at a horizon of houses clustered around Orcutt Road. Rinell said the proposed project was first conceived 10 years ago as a way to help the Perozzis keep their land economically viable and participate in the increasing demand for waste diversion and compost. But now, with the idea that any sort of eventual approval is shaky at best, and could lead to a very expensive project, Rinell said he’s willing to reconsider the size of the project—possibly even the exact location on the land—if that would help move toward a compromise.
While explaining what the proposed project would entail, Rinell brought out folders of papers he had collected from consultants specializing in various methods of odor reduction, including tarp covers and a product that uses beneficial bacteria to eat the odor-causing bacteria. These options are just a few of many Rinell said he’s considered. This problem-solving attitude has played a role in Rinell’s company becoming one of the county’s largest tree service companies. Naturally, he doesn’t see what all the stink is about.
“We are doing this in the interest to benefit the community,” Rinell said. “We have no intentions at all of offending anyone.”
Most of the people involved in this issue would agree on the benefits of a green waste composting facility, which, except for a pilot project in Creston, hasn’t existed in the county since the Cold Canyon Landfill closed its composting operation. The million-dollar question, however, is “where?”
Bill Worrell, manager at the county’s Integrated Waste Management Authority, explained just how tricky answering that is.
“My observation, after 35 years in the industry: The only things harder thing to site than waste facilities are sewage treatment plants and airports,” he said.
Cold Canyon voluntarily shut down its composting operation in 2010 after receiving two complaints—one over the smell of Christmas trees. The state will shut down a facility after it receives three complaints. The Cold Canyon complaints came from neighbors who had bought houses built after the landfill was already in operation, and Tom Martin, general manager of Cold Canyon Landfill and San Luis Garbage Company—both owned by Waste Connections Inc.—suspected that the residential complaints came as a campaign waged by one neighbor in particular who really wanted the site shut down.
Currently, of the green waste collected south of the grade, some is chipped up and spread over the trash at Cold Canyon as daily cover, and some is shipped to a composting facility in Santa Maria.
Johnson agrees that other options should be looked at, and does admit that the closure of Cold Canyon made things more complicated. But Martin—who said that if grinding up Christmas trees and putting the strong scent of pine in the air is enough to generate complaints serious enough to eventually close the plant—isn’t optimistic about a new facility getting off the ground, even if the county were to study prospective sites.
“[The county] wants us to recycle, but they don’t want any of these facilities,” Martin said, citing a posture of resistance at the Planning Commission.
As for the proposed facility, even if it were somehow permitted, it will be a steep uphill battle to actually build it; locals have already been “lawyer shopping” around town, holding initial consultations with a list of litigators, which, if legal actions are taken, would legally preclude the attorneys from being hired by the applicant and, in turn, forcing them to spend more money on out-of-town lawyers who aren’t familiar with area judges. That’s just the first step in a protracted battle residents are preparing for.
“We will appeal, we will litigate, we will do whatever it takes,” Johnson said.
Staff Writer Jono Kinkade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay