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Divided Supervisors Approve Exemption Ordinances to Take Effect If Measure P Passes

Eighty people speak on either side of the anti-fracking debate during a hearing before the county board

Santa Barbara County officials could not remain objective Tuesday — on a subject that was anything but — as residents passionately spoke on both sides of the anti-fracking debate during a hearing reminiscent of a campaign rally.

Eighty public speakers and more than three hours later, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve exemption ordinances to take effect if voters pass the Measure P ballot initiative Nov. 4.

Litigation threats compelled the majority, but Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino cast dissenting votes on principal, saying they didn’t want to provide a “false sense of security” to residents, especially those living in their North County districts where county oil production occurs.

“The Healthy Air and Water Initiative to Ban Fracking” proposes prohibiting fracking, cyclic steam injection and other high-intensity petroleum operations in the county’s unincorporated areas.

Supporters have said Measure P exempts existing operations, although the initiative text just states the ban wouldn’t impact operations if it violates constitutional rights, is deemed an “unconstitutional taking of property” or applies to an individual or entity with a “vested right” as of the date it takes effect.

County staff prepared exemption ordinances with supervisor approval, and the county Planning Commission approved them last month by a 3-2 vote — divided along the same north-south county lines as supervisors.

Under the ordinances, which go into effect 30 days after approval if Measure P passes, the board of supervisors would determine constitutional takings claims exemptions via a public hearing, staff said during a presentation.

For vested rights, the director of planning and development would make and publicize the determination in a process that can be appealed to the planning commissioners, supervisors and the courts. Exemption applications would be voluntary and include a $5,000 initial deposit.

Supervisors posed several questions, including whether ordinances protect the county from all legal risk if existing oil operations sue over vested rights.

“It mitigates, but does not remove, that litigation risk,” said county counsel Michael Ghizzoni, who noted he didn’t want to provide a “roadmap” for how to best sue the county after questioning from Adam.

Yes on P
Measure P supporters listen intently during Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss Measure P exemption ordinances. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

When prompted by Lavagnino, Ghizzoni reiterated a point he made during a previous hearing, saying Measure P as written creates the county’s largest legal risk in recent memory.

“In the long term, amendments could be proposed,” Ghizzoni said of changing some ballot language. “In the short term, if Measure P passes, it is a very significant risk.”

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal tried to bring talk back to the point of ordinances mitigating those fears.

Speakers took one or two minutes to say their piece, all seemingly asking supervisors to make a public endorsement for their side of the argument.

Using harsh rhetoric, including “devil” and “thugs,” those on both sides asked county leaders for protection — for the environment or local jobs and funding that comes from local oil fields.

Santa Barbara resident Lois Hamilton said she lived through the 1969 oil disaster and didn’t want to see further devastation due to voter-deceiving “No on P” TV ads.

Measure P Proponents alleged oil supporters were paid to be present and wear green shirts, worrying about availability and quality of groundwater.

“We are not protecting only the Earth, but we’re protecting our own lives,” Linda Taylor said to hand waves from the crowd.

Opponents cited county staff studies, which say 30 percent of 1,200 active area wells use a cyclic-steaming process, while the rest will use one or more of the prohibited procedures in their lifetimes.

“You’re going to have some very real, tough decisions when you get to the economic problems created by this measure,” said Dave Cross, director of economic development for the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. “How do you put at risk over 1,900 jobs in North County?”

Bob Poole, Santa Maria Energy’s public and government affairs manager, offered logic and facts, saying Measure P would increase dependence on foreign oil where environmental restrictions are far less stringent.

During deliberations, Adam offered a staunch stance against Measure P, expressing frustration with approving ordinances for an initiative that could jeopardize the rights of property owners and endanger taxpayers.

“As it is, we’re sitting here with this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ piece of legislation in front of us that threatens every person in this county,” Adam said. “If Measure P passes, the county will be in litigation until the cows come home.

“The implementing ordinances don’t streamline the process. They will lengthen the process. Everybody has to exhaust all administrative avenues before going to Court. Oil operators will have to use the County processes that are proposed to be created today because they are a prerequisite to going to court. And these disputes are going to end up in Court anyway.”

Carbajal said he had not yet taken a stance on Measure P — if he would at all — but sympathized with proponents who worry about fracking.

“There is no fracking going on right now, but there was fracking a few months back,” he said, with those in the audience yelling “years” to correct him.

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf and Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr stressed the importance of protecting the county from lawsuits by passing the ordinances.

Lavagnino defended the millions oil companies have spent fighting the measure — “I’m sure they probably would’ve preferred not to spend this money” — and those with property mineral rights.

“The Water Guardians threw a grenade at us,” he said of those who gathered signatures to put Measure P on the ballot.

Carbajal and Wolf said their colleagues were being irresponsible, but Adam countered.

“You can count as well as I can, so you’re going to win,” he said. “What the people need to know is that this is a horrific measure.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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