“We forgot, though, that sewer opponents are nothing if not wily.”
The Tribune wrote that in their “Bouquets and Brickbats” editorial on Friday, March 2. The Tribune, which is notorious for publishing their disdain of Los Osos sewer critics, achieved a new low, even by their already non-existent standards. The “sewer opponents” are “nothing” and “wily.”
The Los Osos wastewater project is a story that has captivated and agitated San Luis Obispo County for 30 years, and the exasperation has mutated into poisonous rhetoric that raises the tempearture of simmering civil discourse. The exasperation became a tipping point when The Tribune revealed last Friday that several Los Osos residents — namely the Los Osos Sustainability Group — are petitioning the California Coastal Commission to revoke the sewer permit. This news came after Los Osos resident Gary Freiberg announced his online petition to “Stop the Los Osos Sewer.”
The Los Osos sewer story has started a new chapter of desperation, and it appears that some residents will do anything and everything to end public debate once and for all. Six years ago on August 11, 2004, the Coastal Commission approved the Coastal Development Permit (A-3-SLO-03-113) for the controversial Tri-W project, a project that SLO County Public Works determined as socially infeasible in June 2009. Proponents of the 2005 Los Osos Recall subsequently attempted to revoke the CDP for that project. On April 14, 2005, the Coastal Commission denied the permit revocation request, explaining that there was “no evidence of intentional misrepresentations or noticing deficiencies that had an influence on the Commission’s decision to conditionally approve the project.”
The criteria for permit revocation remains the same. The Tribune correctly states, “The petitioners must prove that information was inaccurate, that it was knowingly submitted and that the information changed the outcome of the commission’s decision.” In other words, intent. Intent to deceive and provide misinformation must be proven with the preponderance of evidence. Intent cannot be shown even if the misinformation presented is voluminous. The Los Osos Sustainability Group is facing an uphill challenge. Even if they were successful in their revocation challenge, LOSG would ultimately be held accountable for project delays. Los Osos residents from a wide spectrum of political viewpoints are concerned with project delays. Politically, the LOSG is in a lose-lose situation that recalls the memories of the unsuccessful revocation bid in 2005 — but those events were overshadowed by the success of the recall.
Support for changing or stopping the sewer has waned considerably since the historically large turnout during the 2005 Recall elections. On September 27, 2005, an average of 3,387 voters voted to recall the three Los Osos Community Service District directors. If all those voters signed Mr. Freiberg’s online petition — which requires 5,000 signatures before the petition is submitted to the County — at least 67% of the petition’s signature quota would be satisfied. As of March 5, the petition has 270 signatures (including people residing outside the Prohibition Zone), despite Mr. Freiberg promoting his efforts on KVEC 92.0, KSBY News, Cal Coast News, New Times and the Bay News. If the deadline to turn over signatures was today, there would be a showing of 0.79% support for changing the configuration of the sewer project or stopping it all together. This statistic would show an alarming drop of support and consensus by 66.21%. It would appear that the efforts led by Mr. Freiberg and the LOSG are miscalculated.
But what if they are right? On January 2010, the majority of Coastal Commission members determined that there were substantial issues with the County’s wastewater project, which determined that a de novo hearing was required. Some members of LOSG penned appeals that the commission eventually deemed worthy enough to raise substantial issue despite County officials’ contentions that the project had no problems. Five months later, the commission voted unanimously to approve the CDP after the County agreed to working with the CDP’s conditions. Members of LOSG also presented a comprehensive Sustainable Basin Plan that aimed to reserve seawater intrusion, improve water quality, lower energy costs and Greenhouse Gas emissions, and provide better protection of the coastal zone’s environmentally sensitive habitat areas (ESHA). In fact, LOSG formed their water conservation plan before the County did — and District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson would have none of it. At a meeting in September 2009, Mr. Gibson mocked LOSG member Keith Wimer for not being a hydrogeologist, an indirect assertion that Mr. Wimer was not qualified to speak about water conservation issues.
Mr. Freiberg has also raised key issues regarding project affordability and residents having to cut back their discretionary spending. Repeatedly declining the label of the “sewer nut,” Mr. Freiberg distanced himself from talking about technological aspects pertaining to the $189 million sewer, and focused instead on a populist message that had no true counterpoint: Many San Luis Obispo County businesses would be affected by Los Osos residents cutting back on their discretionary spending habits.
Current project supporters not only disagree with Mr. Freiberg’s petition but with also with his justification for not building the sewer. In his November 2, 2011 op-ed column published by the New Times, Mr. Freiberg stated that the recent Los Osos Community Services District Water Quality Report determined that no nitrate violations were found in the groundwater. But the LOCSD study only sampled from the lower aquifer, not the upper aquifer. It is the upper aquifer, sewer proponents say, that is polluted by nitrates from septic tanks.
Opponents of the current Los Osos sewer usually mean what they say. The question is how they apply what they mean. The last thing these people want to have is a bankrupt community with a sewer bill that forces people out of their homes. The next thing they don’t want to deal with is a town subdued with apathy. Trying to avoid these consequences, they act desperately without seeking a broader consensus of the community first: a dangerous ‘character’ flaw, but nothing malicious or seditious. The appearance of a few Los Osos residents seeking to revoke the permit for a sewer that would serve thousands looks selfish. The appearance of an online-only petition vowing to stop the sewer and nothing more — with a little more than half of one-percent in support of it — looks shortsighted. But looks are sometimes deceiving. Yet some continue to judge the sewer opposition harshly by appearances alone.
The Tribune calls them “anti-sewerites,” though that’s factually incorrect since the project opposition contains a multitude of viewpoints that are not “anti-sewer.” The dynamics of public opinion of Los Osos cannot rationally be lumped into one term or phrase. There is no denying the festering abscess of exasperation that underscores the project. However, saying that the project opposition is “nothing” or “wily” — as a whole — is malicious and dishonest. Not one Los Osos resident or group is “nothing,” no matter how disagreeable, faulty or one-dimensional one’s views may be. In fact, each interested party — over the course of three decades — has contributed to a discussion so multifaceted and complex that The Tribune is unable to comprehend or write about objectively. The sewer controversy transcends yellow journalism.
If the current situation in Los Osos were to be summed up in one photo, it would be this photo. Remember ReCreate Los Osos? I’ve written about them and their members a few times now. The man in the photo is Lou Tornatzky, President of RCLO, an organization that vowed to “studiously avoid becoming involved as an advocate or adversary in community politics.” The photo shows Mr. Tornatzky wearing a gas mask, which is supposed to show that Los Osos is now engaged in their own thermonuclear sewer war. Nothing shows “studiously avoiding community politics” like taking a menacing photo of yourself in a gas mask for a blog monitoring “anti-sewer activity.”
That particular photo of Mr. Tornatzky symbolizes how toxic the debate has become in Los Osos — and because of The Tribune, the toxicity has become overly aggressive and violence inciting. People have to be very careful about what they say or do on behalf of the community. There is no mistaking the fact that the opposition has caused a stir, but that doesn’t make them “nothing” or “wily” or “anti-sewerites.” Just as there are reasons to support the project, there are also reasons to oppose it. The pros and cons on each side of the debate are mired with flaws, but there is severe overreach when a newspaper declares the sewer a “one size fits all” solution — no questions asked — and the opposition to that sewer model as “nothing.” The consequences of this toxic rhetoric and naivete are far-reaching and, thanks to the Tribune and Los Osos “bomb throwers,” more likely to be deadly.
– Aaron Ochs