Wednesday, March 11, 2015

No Deep Wells for Stanch, Elsewhere Fair Game?

Tonight's City Council meeting saw old issues handled in newly unsatisfactory ways. Mobile home park owners and residents are still feeling in limbo--ordinance discussions have been continued to an undetermined future date in light of new information. This left deep well injection as the primary issue about which to agonize. The council was united in opposing brine disposal wells in Stevenson Ranch/Westridge, but it split when it came to recommending no deep wells for chloride brine be built anywhere in Santa Clarita. The Stanch-dominated crowd grumbled throughout the proceedings, especially when assured that they were getting what they asked for. The only thing that prevented noisier protestations was the fact that the meeting to officially determine the fate of deep well injection will be on Wednesday the 11th.

"Show me the suffering"

For the invocation, Councilmember TimBen Boydston read a prayer by Cesar Chavez. He prayed, "Show me the suffering of the most miserable, So I will know my people's plight...Let the Spirit flourish and grow,/ So we will never tire of the struggle." Some of the more narcissistic in the audience may have imagined the golf course chloride well was the struggle of which he spoke, but Boydston explained that he had chosen to recite Chavez's prayer in light of the approaching commemorative holiday.

LA-RICS Riles

Public participation began with Elaine Ballace, who has come to loathe the City Council for its actions (or inactions) relating to mobile home park rents. Her mother lives at one such a park, and she doesn't think her golden years are looking very bright: "You want to kick her to the curb. Before you kick her to the curb, though, you're going to take every ounce of money she has, then kick her to the curb, call the cops and go, 'Well, she's homeless and she has no money.'" Ballace, whose speaking style is perhaps best described as loud, won applause from the audience. "There is to be no applause in the chambers," warned Mayor McLean in response. This was the first time--but far from the last--that Mayor McLean would demand the audience stop clapping so as not to disrupt the meeting.

Next, Teresa Curtis, a resident on the Pacific Crest neighborhood, brought a new issue to the attention of the council. She explained how Fire Station 108 is located on Rock Canyon Drive in the midst of their community. A new communications tower is being installed there as part of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) for public safety agencies. Curtis explained that they had no advance warning and no opportunity to comment on the project, which had already begun construction. She said this was concerning because the cell tower will emit radiation that she felt could endanger the health of residents. Several other speakers from the community followed, echoing her sentiments and calling for the City to step in and stop the tower from being built. One woman brought up her whole family while she spoke and said, "I'm coming from a communist country, Hungary, OK? And I'm in shock, I'm shocked, that this is happening in the United States." Fire Captain Lew(is) Currier spoke in his capacity as a union director. He said that out of health concerns for firefighters and residents, the LA-RICS tower should be studied carefully, especially if it will be used for co-location of other commercial communication structures.

Since the Station 108 tower was the main topic of public participation, Deputy City Manager Darren Hernandez came to the microphone to respond. He explained that because the fire stations are owned and run by LA County, the City of Santa Clarita cannot "opt out" of LA-RICS, which is what many communities with private fire/police forces have done. David Perry, a field deputy for LA County Supervisor Antonovich (I guess "Mayor Antonovich" now), explained that his office asked for construction on the tower to cease until public outreach takes place. He said they were "somewhat blindsided" by the fact that Motorola had begun construction already. A spokesperson from the company managing the project said it will be up to the LACO Board of Supervisors to determine if colocation of other communication towers will be prohibited; under present agreements it's technically allowed.

The City Council--particularly Boydston, Kellar, and McLean--was very receptive to the community's concerns about the project. Mayor McLean was already prepared to call for a new site to be found, but this sentiment was viewed as somewhat premature by Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar City Attorney Darren Hernandez. Still, the issue will be discussed at a future meeting, and a letter of concern will be sent to Antonovich's office.

Consent Given

Most of the consent calendar items concerned bookkeeping and general city services. Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked that a new program involving Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing not be used with single-family home developments. It's a program which lets energy-saving improvements be paid over time with property taxes. Boydston was also worried that money borrowed under this program is paid back preferentially before private mortgages, etc. (it's part of the property tax) and wanted to look out for the banks. He suggested that banks which have issued mortgages on a property must approve. City Attorney Montes told Boydston that the council could make its participation in the program contingent on bank agreement. It was a bit of a thorny issues, so Mayor McLean stepped in and said, "Perhaps we need some more work on it." Thus, Item 7 was continued, and the recommended actions for all of the other consent calendar items were approved.

A brief public hearing followed. The always succinct Erin Lay explained that a needs assessment had just been completed for the Community Development Block Grant Program. The council received the summary of the needs survey, but no further action was taken.

Mobile Park Owners Dismayed

Last week, mobile home park residents dominated the conversation about revisions to the City's mobile home park ordinance. They described constantly increasing rents, few park improvements, and frustration with the ordinance process. After their testimony, the council agreed to lower the standard annual rent adjustment floor from 3% to 2.6%. This rather modest change was met with dismay from mobile home park owners and managers.

One manager called the standard adjustment shift a "game changer". Most others agreed with him, saying it wouldn't allow them to keep up with costly improvements and maintenance. Mindy Johnson, manager of Parklane, said that talk of rent increases and the ordinance has been disrupting her community. She claimed people have been knocking on doors trying to win support with "false information and scare tactics." Johnson promised that, "We pride ourselves on having very strong resident relations...morning coffee is always available for residents to stop in and say 'hi'." Nancy Must, who manages two of the mobile home park communities with better resident-owner relations (at least based on public comments), said operating expenses have increased by an average of 4.3% per year. She commented, "Possibly there is no one size fits all...I hope that you'll go back and you'll discuss this."

In addition to speakers on behalf of management and owners, many renters were present in the audience. Most chose not to speak. In support of the residents, Doug Fraser did some math. He challenged the assertion that Parklane was facing financial difficulties. "He [the owner] has 400 spaces averaging $900 a space rent. That's $360,000 a month, times 12 months is $4,300,000 that he receives." He said Parklane is suffering from bad management, not low revenue.

Ray Henry and a couple of residents also spoke. However, the City Council did not, because City Manager Ken Striplin explained that new information regarding the ordinance would need to be reviewed. "The continuance is to a date uncertain," he said--definitely no earlier than April. A portion of meeting attendants left at this point, but most of the audience was there to talk about chloride wells, so the room stayed mostly full.

The Discussion Before the Discussion

Say what you will of Stanchers--they get their stuff together in a hurry. Maybe they're late to deep well injection and maybe they're very late to chlorides in general, but tonight's speakers were up to speed, had hired attorneys, and had very specific goals. However, the council wouldn't hear from them for quite a while, having to get their own stuff in order first.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked City Attorney Joe Montes whether there was any conflict in discussing deep wells when two of five councilmembers also sat on the sanitation district board. Montes said that, after conferring with the counsel from the sanitation district, he felt the matter could be legally discussed. The conversation was a bit longer and more convoluted, though. Some of the confusion resulted from previous conversations over whether it would have been proper to vote on chloride treatment preferences. Suffice it to say the conversation could be had by all members of the council, and it was.

Councilmember Laurene Weste was very eager to read a motion she had prepared in opposition of placing any wells on the west side of Santa Clarita. She read it several times, in fact. The motion got a second from Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar. Boydston thought they could do more. He said, "I think a more appropriate motion would be to move that the Santa Clarita City Council oppose the TMDL of 100 milligrams [of chloride] per liter for treated wastewater in the Santa Clarita Valley, oppose deep well injection of treated wastewater anywhere in the Santa Clarita Valley [cheers erupt from audience] and support the withdrawing of the S-DEIR for deep well injection from public circulation and suspend indefinitely the call for public comment of the said S-DEIR." Mayor Bob Kellar was quick to respond. "We have been fighting and fighting and fighting..." He said the sanitation district has been the greatest of allies to the Stanchers, and it was unrealistic to think that sweeping changes could be made. He warned the audience of the LA and State Water Boards, which are forcing the City's hand with the threat of massive fines. "I wish that you could have been in the room in some of the meetings that we have had...and they've backed up what they have threatened."

Councilmember Acosta said he felt that discussing the EIR was "opening a can of worms." He felt it was very much a conversation to be had by the sanitation board, not the council.

Eventually, Mayor McLean spoke. "I would like to add to the motion...I truly believe that we need to pursue with the state to have the limit raised to a reasonable level which will completely do away with having to put anything anywhere." Applause followed, and she added that she'd like the state to put a moratorium on fines until matters were resolved. Of her motion, she asked, "Do we wish to hear the speakers first before we vote?" Before that could happen, there was more discussion.

"Sounds like you're agreeing with TimBen," said Councilmember Acosta to McLean. She wasn't ready to accept this, saying, "Well not quite...the motion that Councilman Boydston made was way stronger." The mayor argued that her motion wasn't suggesting that Santa Clarita would ignore state mandates, but rather that it would try to work with the state to come up with new, more reasonable chloride limits. Councilmember West began pushing her motion again, promising that a new site wouldn't be on the west side of the SCV or in any populated areas, attempting to play to the crowd. "It's not going to be this area!" she promised. Mayor McLean suggested the motion be revised to state that no wells would go by any homes. Boydston asked how far away from homes she would propose the wells be. "Oh come on!" replied a tiring McLean.

"Are we going to listen to the speakers before we vote?" asked Boydston, in an attempt to move the conversation forward.. The audience applauded. Mayor McLean said, "Would you like to have a vote on your motion and then discuss my motion? [Montes came to the microphone, shaking his head to indicate this wasn't the right procedure.] No?  Not first--can't do that? Nevermind." Thus, the public finally got a chance to speak--after an intermission.

Stanch Speaks

Comments began with John Yoon. He spoke with a great deal of feeling, and his arm motions were equally demonstrative, though not quite synchronized with his spoken points. He got to the main argument of the Stanchers--that deep well injection "does not belong under any neighborhood!"--very quickly. He advocated for a pipeline to the ocean for disposal instead, or using trucks to carry ultra-concentrated chloride brine to a disposal location. The audience was amused by and supportive of the colorful speaker.

Kim Sloane said, "I'm encouraged by what I've been hearing." But she was a bit troubled to have received a flyer that was attempting to clear up deep well injection misconceptions. She pointed out that the fears refuted on the sheet--injection causes earthquakes, it's fracking, etc...--were not real misconceptions harbored by residents. They merely stated that deep well injection could increase the probability of earthquakes. It was a risk factor, not a sure thing.

Allen Meachem spoke for Boston Scientific, which has hundreds of employees in Santa Clarita. He said the project made it harder to attract workers to the valley. He wanted them to consider different methods, not just different well sites. He said Princess Cruises had also submitted a letter on the record in favor of other disposal methods that would be better for their employees' safety/peace of mind. Boston Scientific's attorney, Peter Gutierrez of Latham & Watkins, spoke after. He pointed out problems with the EIR. And he wasn't the only outside attorney/expert brought in on the issue. In short, the Stanchers had done a lot to show they would fight deep wells not just on their side of town, but in the whole community.

Al Ferdman made a financial case for the feasibility and cost effectiveness of building a brine line to the ocean. The audience got very excited as he made his points, noting that with grants, savings elsewhere, and other considerations, building a pipeline was mere percentage points more expensive than drilling deep wells. I didn't get all the numbers he dropped, but it sounded persuasive on the surface, and the audience was certainly on board with paying a little more for a pipeline instead of wells.

Many other speakers came forward, suggesting that earthquakes could be triggered far away from injection sites, worrying about migration of brine up through abandoned oil fields, and even stating that the golf course would be rendered less desirable. A big financial point was that the mere perception of more danger from deep well injection could diminish home values--several repeated the idea that perception trumped scientific studies when trying to market a property. The second big financial point was that earthquake insurers wouldn't cover quakes triggered by non-tectonic processes. This was very worrisome to homeowners, who weren't convinced the wells would be seismically neutral.

Lynne Plambeck was perhaps the sole voice not entirely in agreement with everyone else. She said pollution limits exist for a reason. Even if chloride levels are low in Santa Clarita compared to other watersheds, the underlying Clean Water Act is absolutely essential to protecting the public and the environment. She was trying to challenge people who spoke dismissively of meeting TMDL mandates and who wanted to challenge compliance with water laws.

Motions, motions, motions

The City Council discussed the matter for a considerable amount of time once speakers had finished. There was a great deal of confusion over what the motions were, which motions could be made without overstepping boundaries, and so on. There was even more confusion about the proper language for stating that an EIR would be effectively killed--is withdrawing the same as suspending?Mayor McLean asked City Attorney Montes for advice on a few occasions, and at one point he replied, "You're running the meeting..." to reinforce the obvious: the council gets to decide how it feels about the deep well site. At one point, he told the exasperated mayor, "You can vote yes, you can vote no, or you can abstain." Were he not working at the pleasure of the council, I think Joe Montes could have gotten even sassier.

The City Council first decided to support the position of no deep well injection for chloride disposal in the Stevenson Ranch area. Everyone agreed on this, and Stanchers applauded the unanimous vote.

Boydston made some individual motions next. He motioned that no deep wells be considered for anywhere in the Santa Clarita Valley. Councilmember Dante Acosta was somewhat reluctant to interfere with the sanitation board, but he said that since they were just making statements/recommendations for the board, he seconded Boydston's motion. Before the vote, Kellar angered some Stanchers. He said, "Folks, honestly, we've accomplished everything that you were hoping to accomplish. We genuinely have... I don't want to take something off the table that we might be regretting." The Stanchers forming the bulk of the crowd bristled at this, as they had very cogently communicated their wish for no wells anywhere in Santa Clarita--in line with Boydston's motion. It was plain to see they had not "accomplished everything."

On the vote, Boydston and Acosta voted for no deep wells anywhere, Kellar and Weste voted to leave that option open, and McLean abstained. City Attorney Joe Montes explained that her abstention would be considered a vote in favor of the motion per council rules. McLean quickly shouted, "No!" at this. She clarified it wasn't because she was in favor of deep wells, but because she thought it was improper to discuss at council rather than the sanitation board.

Deep into another discussion about the EIR and opposition to chloride mandates, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar was starting to get frustrated. He saw the threat of fines as very real, and he had little patience for any more discussion of alternatives or movements he regarded as unlikely to succeed and very likely to result in more fines. When he concluded his speech, Councilmember Boydston said he had another motion to make--for a longer comment period on the EIR, if it's not withdrawn. At this, Kellar asked, defeatedly, "City Manager, can we order breakfast?" It was decided that the EIR would be cancelled and, in the unlikely event it wasn't, the comment period would be extended. (Weste and Kellar voted no, but Acosta, Boydston, and Kellar got it through.)

Finally, Mayor McLean encouraged working with the state to have the TMDL for chloride raised "to a reasonable level." She got a second from Boydston, and she told the crowd, "I'm going to take you up on your offer, to work with us on this." The whole council voted for this motion, and the crowd was also supportive.

The meeting ended with McLean dismissing most people from making a public participation comment, as they had submitted cards to speak on a topic already covered earlier in the evening. This has become a newly enforced policy under McLean, and it's gotten less grumbles than I would have imagined. The meeting ended after 10.

3 comments:

Patti said...

Please clarify the last sentence in the 3rd to the last paragraph, "It was decided that the EIR would be cancelled and, in the unlikely event it wasn't, the comment period would be extended. (Weste and Kellar voted no, but Acosta, Boydston, and Kellar got it through.)"
Did Kellar vote no, then yes? How did McLean vote?
Thank you.

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