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Unraveling Tri-W

The CSD and county churn up a confusing mess at controversial Los Osos plots

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One year since the recall election that hushed the bulldozers in Los Osos, traces of native vegetation have crept back into Tri-W.

The infamous parcel, purchased by the Community Services District to house a sewage treatment facility, transformed from an environmentally sensitive habitat area to a construction site to a storage yard to a lake to a desert and back to dune-like grassland in 18 short months. Now, as the CSD attempts the daunting task of climbing out of the largest per capita bankruptcy in California history, it's being called an asset.

But who wants it?

The property's positive features are skin deep: optimal proximity to the business district, access to a major thoroughfare, and a sublimely beautiful backdrop. These qualities led board members, prior to the bankruptcy filing, to identify the parcel as a $7.6 million chunk out of the district's growing liability.

However, county Planning Commission staff potentially sullied those plans on Nov. 9 by declaring that building upon the property by a private buyer might violate the General Plan. Planning staff reached the same conclusion for the 80-acre Broderson parcel, which was picked up to provide environmental mitigation for the destruction of Tri-W.

While the finding doesn't block the agency from liquidating its assets, the CSD believes the commission's declaration will negatively impact the value of the properties, considering that any prospective buyer must battle before more than one board to amend the existing permits.

Planning Commission staff conspicuously proclaimed that ironing out all the red tape could take up to two years because of complications at multiple levels of government a bizarre point to raise at a public meeting, some attendees commented. As Osos blogger Ann Calhoun pointed out, "When it comes to developing anything in the Coastal Zone, two years isn't a 'problem,' it's a fast track."

Most of the sitting CSD board, which campaigned on a "Move the Sewer" platform, is hardly turning cartwheels over the notion of the Tri-W skeleton remaining in the outfit's closet while county engineers define the project. In fact, the non-conformity report fueled further speculation that the county might want to pick up where the recalled CSD left off: at Tri-W.

Long before any allegations of illegal deal making or breaking with contractors by the current CSD or its immediate predecessor, political games were already engaged at Tri-W. Earlier in the decade, an agency board self-dubbed the Solution Group faced the dilemma of how to push forward a downtown sewer plant on a piece of property preliminarily purchased from the three brothers Williams.

For the transaction to go ahead, the project to take place on Tri-W required all the regulatory ceremonials. This included passage by the Coastal Commission. So, to sweeten the deal, the directors tossed in a wad of park amenities and told the commissioners that Los Osos wouldn't flush their toilets without it. Board member Dave Potter later grumbled that the situation seemed a bit like a bait and switch.

Nevertheless, the subsequent approval fulfilled the escrow requirements and finalized the 2001 sale forged by Hamner, Jewell and Associates not local developer Jeff Edwards, as asserted by community members and the CSD.

As part of the deal, the regulators required that environmental recovery programs take place at Broderson to offset the transformation of Tri-W into a primrosed park. The park and sewer never actually materialized, but the permit requirements remain in effect for a now-torn-to-hell Tri-W. If the CSD decided to deal the properties to different parties, neither could raise a brick without coordination with the other.

"That's really what's most problematic," said Coastal Commission district manager Steve Monowitz. "My hope is they wouldn't go ahead and sell it to separate parties before the county lays out its plans for a sewer."

But that may be exactly the point. The CSD board wants Tri-W out of the picture and has expressed its suspicion in the past that county officials aim to defy the will of Los Osos by building a treatment facility on the downtown plot.

An Oct. 15 communique from sewer project manager Paavo Ogren to senior planner Mike Wulkan declared that selling Tri-W or Broderson could "delay or unreasonably interfere with the opportunity to develop public sites or structures as identified in the General Plan."

Ogren did not return phone calls.

The non-conformity report simply cites General Plan code, but the actual conflict depends on Public Works' determination of what it needs to build a sewer.

"What happens with the property is a legitimate concern to various public agencies," the Coastal Commission's Monowitz commented, "but I see it as more of a wastewater issue than a General Plan issue."

Senior planner Wulkan responded that the commission's determination was merely informational and a future development on either plot could still land in conformity with the General Plan. Still, he said, certain dangers exist.

"If they sold the land and we later needed it, the county would have to condemn the property," he explained. "It would tie up everything in court and cost everybody more money."

To date, Public Works has not indicated beyond a suggestion what role either property would play in the plans Ogren and his team have drafted. The body merely states that it wants to keep all options open. One of those options includes a potential lift station necessary to install a traditional gravity collection system for sewer-bound wastewater.

This kind of apparatus would prove unnecessary if Public Works incorporated the CSD-touted STEP or pressurized effluent system into its plans.

Noting that the county could snare the small tract of land needed for a lift station with a mere easement, CSD director Julie Tacker called the concern a poor reason to delay or hamper bankruptcy relief.

Immediately following the Nov. 9 meeting, the CSD appealed the decision to the Planning Commission, hoping to whisk away what it invariably sees as a cloud over the impoverished agency's two principle assets.

"More money," CSD board president Lisa Schicker sighed upon learning of the appeal fees.

Staff writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

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