Saturday, July 26, 2008

Agreement reached in sewer debacle


A vicious, 10-year battle over a septic to sewer conversion at Rincon Point took a giant step yesterday toward resolution, after the two warring sides brokered a peace treaty.
Under the settlement, which was reached in the midst of a legal battle over the legitimacy of votes cast during an annexation election, opponents of the sewer project agreed to end their legal challenges and allow the project to move forward.

Heal the Ocean Executive Director Hillary Hauser, whose organization has been the biggest proponent of sewer conversion in the seaside community, hailed the settlement, calling it “unbelievable.”
“We all agreed to stop and put down our swords,” Hauser said. “And we agreed to quit taking pot shots at each other and we shook hands. It was really quite dramatic. I thought I was watching water turn to wine, it was a miracle.”
Heal the Ocean first began drumming up support for the sewer conversion after the group was formed in 1998. Hauser and other surfers said the water at Rincon Point, a popular surfing destination, was making people sick. The cause, she said, was the septic systems of the roughly 140 homes in the Rincon Point, Sandyland Cove and Sand Point Road communities.
But this assessment was highly suspect to some living in the impacted communities. Not to mention, the cost of converting to sewer is steep; about $88,000 per home to cover the entire $9 million cost.
Now that the dispute seems to be all but resolved (a hearing in Ventura County Superior Court is scheduled for Aug. 7), Hauser said she is looking forward to the project to begin. And when it’s finished, she has little doubt it will improve water quality near Rincon.
“It will definitely be better,” she said.
Over the past year, two separate elections have been held to determine the sewer conversion’s fate. An assessment vote held by the Carpinteria Sanitary District and an annexation vote, which would allow the district to add the three beach communities to its umbrella of service, fell in favor of conversion.
But they were both close. And in the case of the annexation vote, opponents of the project likely would have thwarted the conversion if Ventura County elections officials hadn’t thrown out 12 ballots that were contested by Heal the Ocean on grounds the residents who cast them had permanent addresses somewhere else.
After the annexation election was certified by Santa Barbara County election officials, opponents of the sewer filed their own challenges to several ballots, which were the focus of this week’s hearing in Ventura Superior Court.
Billy Taylor, one of the most outspoken opponents of the sewer, said it was the duty of he and other residents to contest roughly 20 ballots that were cast in favor of the sewer, of which six were thrown out.
After the judge tossed out these six ballots earlier this week, Taylor said the annexation vote tally sat at 67-67. But Heal the Ocean had a number of additional ballots it was challenging, and if the judge decided to throw one of them out, the election would have once again swung in favor of sewer proponents.
This reality prompted Taylor and the other opponents to throw in the towel before Heal the Ocean could begin presenting its case.
“We proved in court there were illegal registrants in favor of the project as well,” Taylor said. “I just kind of felt we had to say enough is enough. We decided to kind of let go.”
Taylor said the fact that he and the other opponents to the conversion relented does not mean he now believes sewer conversion is right. He said he believes sewer conversion will do nothing to improve water quality at Rincon, and a more appropriate way to keep pollutants from the coast is to extend the Carpinteria Sanitary District’s treated water discharge pipe another mile offshore.
Taylor said he got involved in the dispute because he doesn’t believe it is right for Heal the Ocean to sell sewers as a quick, easy avenue to cleaner water. When the sewer does arrive, he said it wouldn’t do anything to prevent people from getting sick.
“That remains my position and in no way is our resolve a reflection of a change in my sort of ethics around this situation,” he said. “I just don’t want my fellow surfers, people who love the ocean, people who love the California coast to be led down this kind of stupid path. I want them to look at sewers for what they are: waste management that encourages development and growth every time, hands down.”
Taylor said he believes many of the Rincon residents voted in favor of sewer conversion because they have intentions of developing their lots, or substantially remodeling their homes.
Hauser too admitted development is often a result of access to sewer systems, but said she doubts that will occur in any of the involved communities because they’re mostly built out.
“It is scary about development,” she said. “That once you put pipes out there, who wants to see big mega-mansions go up?”
If the two sides stand by their word and no legal challenges are filed before Aug. 7, the next step will be to allow homeowners to pay cash for the entire conversion up front, which could decrease the total amount owed for the project by as much as $10,000. Those who don’t pay up front will be billed in-step with their property taxes over a 30-year period.
Carpinteria Sanitary District General Manager Craig Murray said the cash period will last through September. After that, bonds can be sold and engineering plans will be drawn up. He said a best-case scenario for construction is early next year.
Murray, who has been the general manager in Carpinteria for the past four years, said it’s never an easy situation when a conversion does not have unanimous support.
“Invariably you don’t get unanimous support and the people who don’t want it, they tend to fight and make if difficult for other people,” he said.
Taylor said he doesn’t expect any further protest in regards to the sewer at this stage, but he vowed to join with his neighbors to ensure the project is completed in a safe, efficient manner.
Taylor and Hauser both seemed relieved this stage of the project is over, and admitted the cantankerous tone on both sides likely didn’t do much good.
“It’s kind of been devastating to this little community,” Taylor said. “[But] in the end it’s for a good cause. You need to question the merits of projects like this.”

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