The California Coastal Commission met last Friday in San Louis Obispo to discuss a handful of topics, but the only one we cared about is the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant. Poseidon Water, the company hoping to build the desal facility, requested that the Coastal Commission waive a coastal development permit application fee that would cost them an estimated $286,649.
Although the agency's regulations allow the executive director to waive an application fee when requested by resolution of the commission, the Coastal Commission staff strongly urged their bosses to deny Poseidon's request. The reason, according to the staff, is due to the amount of time required to review upcoming plans, as well as the fact Poseidon hasn't expressed any financial hardship.
The commission denied Poseidon's fee waiver request. But the hearing mostly highlighted the tense relationship between the Coastal Commission and Poseidon Water. In a letter written on January 6th, 2017, Poseidon outlined six reasons why the Coastal Commission should waive the big fee. But one of the commission staffers went through the list and explained to the Coastal Commission why they weren't valid points.
"As you know there is a lot of history here," a commission staff member said, "including a November 2013 Coastal Commission hearing on an earlier proposal to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach that ended with Poseidon withdrawing its permit application. Poseidon claims in the letter that they withdrew the application at the request of the Coastal Commission, but that didn't match our memory of the hearing..."
Another point Poseidon included in its fee waiver request was their resubmission of an application in 2015 because of commission staff preference. But a new desalination amendment adopted on May 6th, 2015 significantly changed the permitting landscape. It gave the Regional Board primary authority to determine whether a project has the best available site, design, technology and mitigation measures possible. The commission staff recommended that Poseidon obtain the Regional Board approval before going to the Coastal Commission. But that didn't quite happen.
"The staff didn't recommend that Poseidon resubmit an application when it did in September 2015 for a number of reasons...," said a commission staffer. "But because at the time the desalination amendment was a draft and not yet law, staff couldn't require evidence of conformance with the desal amendment as a permit filing requirement...We did deem that application incomplete for various reasons."
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In March 2016 Poseidon was ready to submit information to commission staff that it believed would result in a complete application, explained the agency's staffer. For various reasons, however, the commission staff was concerned Poseidon might be faced with another permit withdrawal, so the staff gave the desal developers options. Commission staff suggested it might be good for Poseidon to leave the application incomplete so they could gather more data for sub surface intakes— an issue that the Coastal Commission, marine biologists and environmentalists have gone back and forth over, especially as of late. Alas, Poseidon denied that suggestion. It's likely the Coastal Commission is going to require a number of extra assessments before the final decision is made on the project.
Poseidon staff stated in late December that they believe their request for a fee waiver was justified because the company's coastal development permit application was completed on time—just not considered ontime due to commission delays. Poseidon Water Project Development head Stan Williams, was at the Friday hearing and defended the company's reasoning.
"When we got close to the end of the independent process, it became clear that the staff wasn't pleased with the outcome," said Williams. "The way we found that out was that we weren't able to get a response from [the commission]...We actually met with staff and there are different versions of how that went... What I want you guys to take away from this today is that we have really tried to work with the process to make the process clear not only for us but for other applicants who come after us, as we are pioneering the new desal amendment process."
And thus, the Poseidon saga continues its lengthy process. "This is an extremely complex project, as you know, with a lot of moving parts and it continues to take a significant amount of staff time," said another commission staffer. "Tom Luster, the key staff member on this project, calculated that he spends 30 to 70 percent of his time on this project each week."