Septic to Sewer, Sewer to Lawsuit?

Rincon Point Sanitary Switch Wins Key Voter Challenge

Rincon Creek rages after a heavy rainfall in 2005. For nearly a decade, folks have been fighting to clean up the water around there via a septic- to-sewer system conversion for the area's homes.
Paul Wellman

Though the results of a controversial special election on the subject still need to be certified by the Santa Barbara County Registrars office, it appears that the decade-old struggle to convert the homes along world famous Rincon Point from septic to sewer systems has taken a large step towards becoming a reality this week.

With Ventura County election officials ruling Thursday afternoon that more than a dozen of the ballots from last month’s homeowner vote were invalid due to various voter inaccuracies, the long-stewing plans for a sewer are poised to earn a narrow victory this week, with 73 votes in favor and 66 opposed. Hillary Hauser – who heads Heal the Ocean, the Santa Barbara-based non-profit that has been the driving force behind the conversion plan since 1999 – was screaming with joy Friday morning, “It still has to be certified.” she said, “but we know what the numbers are and all I can say is yeehaw! It’s wonderful”

Hillary Hauser outside of the Santa Barbara County Registrars office
Paul Wellman

The outcome of last month’s pivotal Rincon Point homeowner vote was in limbo for the past two weeks as Ventura county officials investigated allegations of voter fraud – levied by Heal the Ocean lawyer Fred Woocher and related to 20 of the 152 cast ballots. According to Woocher at that time, the voter fraud alarms went off in a big way late last year, and thus prompted their challenge to the ballots cast in April’s special election, when 20 previously unregistered voters appeared on the Ventura County rolls. In one instance, 12 of these new voters appeared to live at one residence alone.

In the end, after more than two weeks investigating, Ventura officials disqualified all but seven of the challenged votes either because signatures on them didn’t match the County’s records or because they were cast by individuals who county officials believe do not actually live full-time in the Rincon community. A quick crunch of the numbers reveals that had the controversial ballots – the vast majority of which are believed to have been in opposition of the conversion – been deemed legitimate, the septic switch would have been dead in the water.

As overjoyed as Heal the Ocean and its supporters may be with Ventura’s ruling, those residents opposed to the conversion, known as the Rincon Point Foundation, were equally dismayed Friday afternoon. “I think the decision is appalling” said Billy Taylor, a relative newcomer to the area who has been spearheading a resistance to the conversion since the middle of 2007. To Taylor, the idea that a switch from individual septic tanks to a comprehensive sewer system will clean-up the waters off Rincon Point is anything but guaranteed – not to mention the fact that it will cost each homeowner an estimated $80,000. “There is still no proof that this thing will keep surfers from getting sick,” Taylor said. “Unfortunately, we are going to have to press this issue now upon an authority higher than the registrar’s office.” Though he said he and his organizations lawyers are still “looking into it,” it would seem that, with no protocol for appeal in place, the only “higher authority” would be the courts and an eventual lawsuit.

In the mean time, the Santa Barbara County registrars – who are overseeing the election, as Rincon Point straddles the Ventura and SB county line – is slated to officially handcount all the qualified ballots between May 15 and May 20. (According to Chief Deputy Registrar Billie Alvarez, the count will most likely take place and be certified on May 15, at which time the results will be passed along to the Board of Supervisors for a final procedural approval later in the month.) Once that is complete, the Carpinteria Sanitary District will be able to begin the process of accepting the annexation that was approved during the aforementioned controversial vote – a major bureaucratic step towards the septic switch being realized.

That being said, Hauser fully acknowledged in the wake of the good news this week that an additional legal battle or two were more than likely in the months ahead. “We expect a lawsuit or another challenge. At this point they will probably try anything they can,” said Hauser before adding defiantly, “But all they are doing is wasting their money.”


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