Just as a massive west swell lit up fabled Rincon Point this week, late-hour legal jockeying and one big procedural blunder by a county agency have the long-simmering plans to convert the 72 homes that line the fabled surf break from septic to sewer systems very much on the ropes-less than two months after they seemed all but guaranteed to become a reality. On October 16, a formal vote of support from Rincon area homeowners preliminarily paved the way for the Carpinteria Sanitary District to create a new assessment district-a fundamental and final step in the nine-year battle to change the realities of what happens when a toilet flushes at the Rincon. Some supporters of the conversion believe the vote marked a step toward ending the long-standing problem of surfers getting sick after riding Rincon’s world-class waves.
However, thanks to a mistake on the part of Santa Barbara LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) in the public notification process for a legally mandated protest hearing, the annexation of county land into the Carpinteria Sanitary District that was unanimously approved by LAFCO prior to the vote was sent back to the drawing board. This hang-up has allowed those opposed to the conversion to circle the wagons, flesh out their legal challenges, and potentially derail the project. As Billy Taylor, an outspoken critic of the sewer switch and a newcomer to the Rincon neighborhood, put it, “If LAFCO had their act together, this would have gone through and been finalized a long time ago. There is no doubt that this is a very lucky opportunity for us.”
Taylor and company, who formed the Rincon Point Foundation as the official vehicle for their efforts to stop the conversion, are less than convinced that the switch-which would cost each homeowner an estimated $80,000-will improve the water quality at Rincon. However, their stance flies in the face of years of work by local nonprofit Heal the Ocean. After a 1999 DNA test showed traces of human fecal matter in the water of the downstream stretches of Rincon Creek, Heal the Ocean led a relentless grassroots effort to clean up the waters of Rincon and convert the million-dollar homes along the point from septic to sewer. After lawsuits, countless public hearings, and years of widespread fundraising efforts, Heal the Ocean’s dream was becoming reality until the LAFCO mistake was detected by Rincon Point Foundation lawyers last month. Determined to survive the setback but clearly upset with the current state of affairs, Heal the Ocean’s Executive Director Hillary Hauser said this week, “I can’t believe that after nine years on this project it could go to pieces because of bumbling idiocy. It is like a bad dream.”
For their part, LAFCO Executive Director Bob Braitman readily admitted the snafu this week, saying, “It happened because the LAFCO staff screwed up-specifically me.” Besides failing to announce the original protest hearing for the annexation of land into the Carpinteria Sanitary District on October 3 on their Web site as mandated by law, Braitman explained, they also failed to send notice by mail to all the Ventura County residents affected by the would-be annexation. (Rincon Point straddles the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line.) As a result, the organization held a new protest hearing on December 3, though the results are not expected to be known for at least a week or two. Should 25 percent of the registered voters or 25 percent of the landowners in the impacted area protest the plan, the issue would be pushed to a county-sanctioned special election sometime early next year. However, if a simple majority of the registered voters protested it on Monday, then the annexation as well as the septic-to-sewer conversion will be “dead in the water” according to both Braitman and Carpinteria Sanitary District General Manager Craig Murray. Speaking about the likely results of this week’s re-vote, Hauser said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if the issue wound up in the special election, while Taylor, whose organization spearheaded a last-minute voter registration campaign to buoy the opposition’s cause, claimed that he was “pretty sure more than 50 percent had voted against it.”
Explaining that her own organization might have a legal challenge to the accuracy of this week’s protest vote and also alluding to a laundry list of accusations being made by the Rincon Point Foundation calling into question the legality of the homeowners’ mid-October vote, Hauser said this week, “Everything is really on hold until we know the LAFCO results, but I promise you, Heal the Ocean is fully prepared to fight for this until the end.”