Wednesday, May 17, 2017

[Santa Barbara County] Grand jury says SYCSD followed procedure in annexation, guilty of poor communication

Santa Ynez Community Services District followed proper procedures and policies in annexing several hundred parcels last year, according to a Santa Barbara County grand jury report released last week.
But the grand jury criticized the district for minimal and confusing communication with residents and property owners, insufficient informational meetings and a lack of coordination between the district and the county Local Agency Formation Commission regarding the annexation.
Under state law, the district is not required to provide a response to the report.
“The 2016-17 Santa Barbara County grand jury determined that the Santa Ynez Community Services District and Santa Barbara (County) Local Agency Formation Commission followed statutory procedures regarding the annexed area of west Santa Ynez,” the report concluded.
“What was needed were more public informational meetings, better communication with the public and better coordination between the two agencies,” it said.
The report also said the option for landowners in the annexed area “to connect to the sewer system (is) beneficial, especially as the total cost may be amortized over 20 years.”
Grand jurors also noted not all landowners would decide to connect to the sewer system and wouldn’t have to do anything until their septic system fails, at which time they could install an advanced treatment system, perform ongoing maintenance of the system and have it inspected at least once a year by qualified inspectors.
“Both these options will protect the groundwater from serious contamination,” the report said.
Launched by complaint
The grand jury investigated the district’s annexation process, which began in January 2016, after receiving several complaints from homeowners within the western portion of Santa Ynez that was finally annexed in September 2016.
Homeowners complained the district had not held enough public meetings, collected enough community input or provided enough information about the impacts of the annexation.
The report said residents also complained they were not adequately informed about how protest filing worked and were given little information about what it would cost to connect to the district’s sewer system.
Although not mentioned in the report, some residents had previously claimed what information was provided to them about costs was false, deflating the amount for connecting to the sewer system and inflating the amount for installing an advanced onsite septic treatment system.
Several had also asserted their calls to SYCSD and LAFCO seeking more information were never returned.
Grand jurors investigated the claims by interviewing landowners, registered voters, board and staff members of the district and staff members of LAFCO, reviewing the County Local Agency Management Program and a septic system survey conducted for the county by Questa Engineering Corp.
They also reviewed SYCSD board meeting minutes and informational documents, the LAFCO protest hearing notice and protest form and a map of the annexation area.
The report noted LAFCO’s meeting minutes were not available for review.
Findings outlined
In the report, the grand jury said the annexed area was already inside the district’s sphere of influence — an area that is likely to be annexed in the future.
It also was one of 24 “focus areas” determined by the county Department of Public Works in a 2000 survey to have the highest concentrations of septic systems and the greatest potential for nitrates and pathogens from those systems to infiltrate the groundwater during heavy rains.
As a result of a 2013 State Water Resources Control Board policy, the county developed a Local Agency Management Program for septic systems in a process involving engineers, septic pumpers and representatives of the agriculture and real estate industries.
It also involved the nonprofit organization Heal the Ocean, which focuses on wastewater, sewer and septic systems as well as ocean dumping that have contributed to ocean pollution.
As a result of its involvement, Heal the Oceans was chosen to send informational letters to Santa Ynez homeowners advising them of changes to septic system regulations.
“Because Santa Ynez is not on the ocean, the jury learned that some homeowners discarded the letter without opening it, thinking it either did not pertain to them or was a fundraising solicitation,” the report said.
The county adopted the Local Agency Management Plan in January 2016, and that same month SYCSD filed its annexation application with LAFCO, which adopted a resolution approving the annexation that May.
It also mailed notice to landowners and registered voters in west Santa Ynez informing them of the annexation and a protest hearing to be held June 30.
While the notice said a protest form would be included, it did not indicate the form was printed on the back of the notice, nor did it explain how the value of the written protests would be determined.
The grand jury report pointed out that LAFCO published the required legal notice of the hearing but only in the Santa Maria Times, not in other local publications.
Although LAFCO had sent the notices in accordance with its procedures and timelines, SYCSD had not held a public meeting to inform residents and homeowners of the costs and options, and on June 9 quickly sent out a letter inviting them to the June 15 district board of directors meeting and emphasizing “they were not being forced to connect to the sewer system,” the report said.
At the meeting, the district outlined the two options if a septic tank failed and told audience members the cost of installing an advanced treatment system would be about $40,000, plus maintenance, inspection and repair costs.
District officials said in contrast, it would cost $25,000 to hook up to the sewer system, which could be paid up-front if spread over 20 years at prime-plus-1-percent interest, plus a user fee of $800 per year, all of which would be added to the property owner’s tax bill.
Officials said the cost could be less if the district obtained grants for some of the work, including laying new sewer lines, but homeowners would be responsible for the lateral line to the sewer main and decommissioning and crushing the old septic tank.
The final tally
Protests filed by registered voters were tabulated by the county Elections Office, which found 153 of 712 registered voters, or 21.49 percent, filed protests.
Protests filed by land owners were tabulated by the county Assessor’s Office, which determined 131 of 531 landowners, or 24.67 percent, had filed valid protests.
Had more than 25 but less than 50 percent of either group submitted protests, the annexation would have gone to a public election.
If more than 50 percent of either group had filed protests, the annexation would have been terminated.
“In this case, because both sets of protests were less than 25 percent, the annexation was forwarded to the state for final approval,” the grand jury report said.
May 15, 2017
Santa Ynez Valley News
By Mike Hodgson

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