Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 7
Los Olivos CSD and sewer system move forward with LAFCO approval
By DAVID MINSKY
Los Olivos can take the next steps to form a community services district thanks to Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which approved the Santa Ynez Valley town’s application at an April 13 meeting. The application also includes a $20 million estimate to build a new water reclamation facility and sewer system to replace the town’s overflowing septic tanks.
Approved by at least 42 percent of Los Olivos’ registered voters, the application is the latest step toward mitigating the town’s septic tank pollution and forming a semblance of self-governance in the unincorporated community.
Since 1974, much of the town of roughly 1,100 people has been designated a “special problems area” by the county after it was discovered that overflowing septic tanks were leaking oxygen-starving nitrates into the shallow groundwater table below.
Then in 2012, the State Water Resources Control Board gave residents an ultimatum: Fix the problem yourselves or the county will take over.
The issue has been contentious among residents who want local control with the new district and those who say they’re being misled by the costs, among myriad other reasons. Both sides shared their thoughts with LAFCO commissioners at the April 13 meeting.
Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company owner and resident Jaime Dietenhofer called it a “very proud day” for Los Olivos residents.
“After 135 years, this is our moment in time to give our community a formal voice,” Dietenhofer said. “With this option, we’ll have local control, and equitable control, and a voice.”
But the idea of local control could be a misnomer. Heal the Ocean’s Hillary Hauser referred to a February 2014 letter from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board at the LAFCO meeting, reminding commissioners that the board ultimately had control of setting the timeline for the formation of the new district.
“The conditions for local agencies to develop and implement a project at their own pace will be replaced by a set of conditions requiring action and a timeline conferring implementation of those actions,” Hauser said. “This whole effort for local control is not going to be local control, it’s going to be regional board control.”
The question of cost loomed large at the meeting as well.
The Los Olivos Water Reclamation Steering Committee—a group of private landowners and business professionals, including Dietenhofer—hired Berkson Associates to evaluate the feasibility of the Los Olivos district and prepare a report.
If onsite septic systems are left in place, the Berkson report stated, it would cost each household more than $17,000 to upgrade their systems plus an annual $895 maintenance fee.
The Berkson report estimated that the new district would cost $110,500 for the first year. After that, it would cost $189,000 per year to run the district administratively. That’s about $31 per residential unit per month, but it doesn’t include construction costs.
“Formation of a community services district does provide a local governing body that would clearly have an incentive and motivation to minimize costs and evaluate the actual systems that would make the most sense for the area,” Richard Berkson said at the meeting.
Berkson told the LAFCO commissioners that the report’s figures were “fairly conservative.”
Commissioner and 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents Los Olivos, said forcing landowners to replace their septic systems with a collection system would be more expensive.
The LAFCO vote isn’t the final say for the new district’s formation. If more than 50 percent of Los Olivos voters defeat the proposal in a mail-in referendum, the district can’t move forward. But if that vote fails, the district, the formation of its board of directors, and the approval of a formation assessment would go to a formal public vote.
Commissioner and 5th District Santa Barbara County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino called the process “inspirational.”
Los Olivos winemaker Keith Saarloos, who is “100 percent” in support of the district, said it was the start of something bigger.
“The conversations have been quite vigorous, but that’s democracy,” Saarloos said.
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