Nipomo: Preserving the village

In an ongoing effort to provide as comprehensive coverage as is possible of Nipomo’s Incorporation movement, I am adding various media stories to our archives. Most of what is there now is current media coverage; however, I have several stories which date back several years, such as this one, which appeared in the New Times on 10/4/01. Where a link to an existing story still exists, I am providing that link to the original story, such as with this one. I am also re-posting the entire story below in case the original story at some time is removed from the online archives of the original source. For a comprehensive listing of all media coverage in our archives click on the Media Coverage section on the side bar:


Nipomo: Preserving the village


Nipomo is the Chumash word for village, not city, but residents fear that county planners and the Board of Supervisors secretly have the word “city” in mind when they approve projects for Nipomo.

“We’ve more than doubled in the last 10 years–the growth isn’t even linear, it’s exponential. We’re worried that it’s too much too fast, and we won’t have enough water, and our little roads won’t be able to handle all that traffic,” said John Bowen, one of 25 residents sitting on the Nipomo Community Advisory Council Board of Directors. “A lot of people have come to the conclusion that Nipomo is going to be the biggest city in the county in the next 15 to 20 years.”

The Council is made up of residents from all different segments of the community–school board members, law enforcement personnel, and members from the committee to restore the Dana Adobe. It meets twice a month and disseminates information to the public about planning documents, ordinances, and issues that affect Nipomo.

Bowen explained that because Nipomo isn’t a city, it falls under the county’s general plan for growth. But while the county averages a growth rate of 2.3 percent, Nipomo was growing at a rate of 4 to 6 percent a year, until a group of residents called Save the Mesa partnered with the Environmental Defense Center to stop it.

But putting a nix on a rapid growth rate isn’t this town’s only concern. Water–or a lack thereof–is the main focus for current residents who fear that more growth will mean overdraft of their water supply. Nipomo is close to overdrawing water from its underground natural storage, like overdrawing a bank account. And rainfall isn’t keeping up with how much gets point out.

Yet new projects still get approved. Most recently the Board of Supervisors went against county staff recommendations and approved the Craig project without an environmental impact study. The Craig project proposes to build 16 houses, each on a one-acre parcel. A remaining 32 acres will be donated for a future school site. Figuring that the water issue would be adequately dealt with during an environmental impact report for the school, the supervisors voted to allow the residential portion of the project to begin.

“The county (government) doesn’t seem to believe that south county is in an overdraft status,” Bowen said. “The county has not declined any proposed project on the basis of water.”

Nipomo’s water situation has been studied by the Department of Water Resources (January 2000); the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District (March 2000); The Santa Barbara County Water Agency; (December 1999); and Environmental Science Associates for a supplemental environmental impact report for a project called the Woodlands (July 2001).

However, in the latter EIS, the previous reports were reviewed and the conclusion was made that overdraft is more a fear for the future than a documented reality today.

The report showed that two out of nine municipal wells in Nipomo were in overdraft status due to excessive pumping, but that the aquifer itself was not in overdraft yet, and may instead be finding a new equilibrium.

While the health of the community’s water supply is in question, many residents wish the Board of Supervisors would place a moratorium on growth.

Instead, the Board of Supervisors hired Kennedy/Jenks Consultants to study options to supplement Nipomo’s groundwater supply. The study, completed last August, outlined a dozen options ranging from conserving water, which the Nipomo Community Services District already does, to hard rock drilling or buying water.

“The alternatives are pretty meager,” said Nipomo CSD Board member Cliff Trotter, who spent 35 years as a water district engineer manager in Kern County and the San Joaquin Valley before coming here.

“The best option is to buy water from somewhere else, namely Santa Maria which gets 16,200 acre-feet of water from the state each year.”

The Woodlands developers, P.H. Properties, have already exercised that option, putting themselves first in line for any available Santa Maria water. They entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the city of Santa Maria In January 1997 that basically says if and when the Woodlands project gets off the ground, the two entities would discuss a water agreement. Santa Maria would consider selling 1,100 acre-feet a year of replenishment water to the Woodlands project, said Tim Ness, Santa Maria city manager. Replenishment water has been piped into Santa Maria from the state and, in this case, used, recaptured, and treated. Ness said the city has about 8,910 acre-feet per year of such water–about half of the total 17,820 acre-feet of water it gets directly from the state every year.

It’s also an option for the Nipomo Community Services District to buy its own water from Santa Maria, Ness said, whether the Woodlands project gets water from its neighbor to the south or not. But no formal discussions have taken place yet between the CSD and Santa Maria.

Trotter also suggested that Nipomo could get a part of SLO County’s state water, which is 20,000 acre feet a year. “The county hasn’t allocated it to any communities yet. It’s going to be very political if and when they do,” he said.

Some of the biggest issues for long-time resident Donna Mills aren’t the land resources–they’re people, little people.

“Children are a resource, too,” the past chairman of the Nipomo Community Advisory Council said. “It’s just so important that when we’re looking at all the things that are being impacted, we look at that, too. Schools are being impacted by the amount of development we’re having here.”

Mills has been on the Lucia Mar School District Board of Trustees since 1991, and is the sole Nipomo representative on the seven-member board.

She said that Nipomo is feeling much of the strain in the district because one-third of the children for the Lucia Mar area, which extends from the Santa Maria River bridge to Shell Beach, live in Nipomo. All three of the Nipomo area schools are overcrowded, she said, mostly by about 200 students on campuses built for 400.

“Your capacity in the cafeteria is not going to change as the student population increases. The same thing happens with the libraries,” she said. “There are other things that are not gong to grow along with the students, so adjustments and staggered schedules have to be put into place.”

The pressing need for new schools is one reason the Board of Supervisors approved the Craig project without waiting for a water study.

But even when developers like those doing the Craig Project plan for school sites, the school district often doesn’t have enough money to build a school on that land. The developers’ fees are also not enough to build a school either, so the area has to wait until a state bond is but on the ballot to get the funding. One such bond is supposed to be on the March 2002 ballot, Mills said, but even if passed, it would most likely be at least three to four years until Nipomo sees another elementary or middle school finished.

Mills said a brand new high school, slated to open soon, offers a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. But even with the new school alleviating some of the overcrowding at Arroyo Grande High School, the system won’t be able to keep up with the current rate of growth, she said.

Meanwhile, residents are trying to keep growth at bay on a project-by-project basis. Nancy Allison, a Save the Mesa member, spends hours on the internet and in the library researching projects and growth issues as they emerge. Allison then hands that information off to another member of the grassroots organization so they can speak out at a Board of Supervisors meeting or other community meeting. She’s not the front lines person, but she’ll find more than enough information to fuel the battle to save the Nipomo area from over development. “If I can find the research, I love a good paper fight,” she said.

Her passion for the fight comes from her environment. For more than 12 years, Allison has lived on five acres overlooking the Santa Maria Valley. Four of those acres are landscaped with plants from all over the world, creating a lush, private jungle complete with a koi pond and exotic birds.

Right down the road from her oasis lies the 957-acre Woodlands project, now a eucalyptus grove. That and other nearby projects could directly affect Allison’s water supply and would change a lot about the bluffs she loves.

Allison objects to some of the higher density portions of the Woodlands plan. She sees many alternatives to cramming three dozen homes on a 3-acre parcel. Putting one house on one acre–the way much of Nipomo was originally zoned–would keep large trees on the lot and keep the area in ecological balance, she said.

“[People] think we have the attitude that we’re here now and want to keep everybody else out,” she said, “That’s not true. I’d welcome another neighbor. We’re not saying people can’t develop here, just keep it what it’s zoned for.”

Allison also has a stack of documents pertaining to the Woodlands project, and even though she says this particular 1,320-house development is nothing compared to the entire scope of rampant growth in the area, she’s keeping her eye on it.

One thing that concerns Allison most is a statement in the Final Environmental Draft Report for the Woodlands project that said the community’s need for golf was a factor in the supervisors’ decision to approve the project.

The report states that a 1992 study determined that San Luis Obispo County has an “unmet recreational need of 225,000 rounds of golf each year” and that “this project will help to meet that need.”

Earlier in the same section, the report states: “The Board of Supervisors finds that the benefits of the project outweigh the unavoidable adverse environmental impacts to the extent that they become ‘acceptable.'”

The estimated annual sales tax revenue from the 45 holes of golf proposed in the project was estimated to be $108,803 per year; the contribution to county property taxes is estimated to be in excess of $5.4 million each year once built.

But Pam Murray, a Nipomo area resident since 1958, thinks that Save the Mesa members and others need to have a stronger sense of history when it comes to Nipomo planning issues, particularly the Woodlands project.

“One of Nipomo’s problems is that a lot of people who moved into the new growth communities now want to pull up the ladder and not let anybody else in,” she said.

Murray chaired an earlier Nipomo advisory council called NAAG (Nipomo Area Advisory Group), which in turn facilitated hundreds of community meetings held in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when the South County Area Plan was being developed.

The South County Area Plan, which includes Nipomo, was completed in April 1993. It calls for Nipomo to be zoned mostly residential with lots that increase in size outward from the town core, which has several multi-family zoned parcels.

P.H. Properties, the developer of the Woodlands project, participated in hundreds of the public meetings regarding the South County Area Plan, Murray said, and their proposed project was shaped by public opinion and incorporated into the plan. P.H. Properties acquired the 957-acre Nipomo property zoned for industry in 1988 through a corporate merger. The developer quickly found out was that residents did not want all 957 acres developed for industry. According to Murray, a town survey, financed by P.H. Properties, was conducted. The outcome of the survey and the meetings was a concept of Nipomo’s future she calls the rural villages concept.

“The idea was to develop a series of self contained villages zoned for residential, offices, and commercial that would be linked with bike and bridle trails,” she explained. The community was 70 percent behind it, she said, and Woodlands was to be the first of those villages.

Based on community input, the Woodlands project was designed as a self-contained community with a high-tech commercial park similar to Irvine, surrounded by residences and recreational uses.

“They proposed to hard wire the entire complex so residents could telecommute,” Murray said.

Today, the project, which is only on paper, still contains some commercial development, but a lot of the original concept was altered to include more residences and more golf. The plan calls for 1,320 new residential units, a 500-room resort, a 9-acre commercial village core, a 22-acre business park, 45-holes of golf, a 12-acre public park including an 11-acre butterfly preserve, two 24-acres of “flex-zoning,” for business parks, bike and bridle trails.

“I think people don’t realize that they sometimes need to embrace a large corporation that is willing to come in and do all the work and build the necessary infrastructure,” Murray said. “If you don’t, it gets developed piecemeal and that is worse. What they planned would lay as gently on our land as possible. If they keep fighting it, they are going to get greenhouses on all 957 acres and they will have to clear cut the land. Or they are just going to get affordable housing there.

“What I think the community needs to do is develop their people resources–have these people become overseers rather than opponents so they make sure these developers do the things they say they are going to do rather than make 5,000 excuses,” Murray added. “It would take better care of Nipomo than all the uproar in the papers.”

Battles won by community activists in the war to slow down growth in Nipomo are impacting the Woodlands project despite the fact that it had already been approved and was written into the South County Area Plan. If the County adheres to the 2.3 percent growth cap in Nipomo it would take the developer 200 years to complete the Woodlands. For this reason they are asking for an exception to the growth management ordinance.

Many in Nipomo feel that they might as well incorporate and become a city, so they would have better control over growth.

Guy W. Murray, a local attorney, heads up a committee advocating incorporation for Nipomo. “Everybody here has the same vision of Nipomo–large lots with low density rural development. The question is what is the best way to maintain that?” he said. “My feeling is that local government will do it best. We don’t even have a supervisor who lives in Nipomo. Right now when people in Cambria vote for their supervisor, they are voting for someone who will make decisions for Nipomo. My feeling is that the people who are making planning decisions should be the ones who have to live with the effects of their decisions.”

Yet Nipomo probably won’t become a city in the near future thanks to a state law passed in 1992 that requires communities to prove “revenue neutrality.” This means that before they incorporate, communities must prove that the County won’t lose substantial amounts of revenue, an almost impossible task.

All scenarios seem to point to Nipomo as a place that will continue to boom. The only question left now to debate is how. Æ

Anne Quinn is a reporter for New Times. Andrea Rooks is a reporter for New Times sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun.


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