For as long as Mark Herthel can remember, his hometown of Los Olivos has always taken care of its own — a rural Santa Ynez Valley community where most of its 1,000 residents readily volunteer time and money for improvements.
That mentality has served the unincorporated area of Santa Barbara County well, even as the community floods every weekend and holiday with tourists frequenting some of its 40-plus wine tasting rooms.
But that influx coupled with new state regulations is forcing Los Olivos residents and business owners to challenge the status quo in favor of forming its own Community Services District.
At the heart of the matter are bathrooms.
“We need restrooms for visitors,” said Herthel, who is spearheading the community effort to form the governing body. “We realize there are certain problems we can’t address as volunteers. In order to solve that problem, we need some sort of local entity. A Community Services District could act as de facto town council.”
Since 1974, the county has designated Los Olivos as one of its “special problem areas” because of sewer system inadequacy, soil conditions, groundwater and density, according to Larry Fay, the county environmental health services director.
The whole town operates on individual septic systems instead of a citywide sewer system, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Septic systems are a very good — very green — way of dealing with sewage treatment in a low-density rural environment,” Fay told Noozhawk. “When you jam too many together in too small of an area, you start creating many potential problems (i.e. groundwater contamination). The reason you would have sewer is to collect that and put it in a central place to be treated before it’s released back out in the environment. Because you have a limited ability to actually treat sewage, you’re pretty much locked into what you have.”
Meaning that just because you want to remodel, expand or construct a commercial building on your property, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to.
Beyond those potential issues, residents feel urgency due to recently passed mandates from the State Water Resources Control Board, which require stricter regulation and management of Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems installations and replacements.
So most people will have to replace or update their on-site sewage systems, anyway.
An elected CSD board could oversee sewer contracts and handle billing, not to mention take over public works or parks duties already assumed by volunteers.
Herthel started organizing educational meetings in May, and more than 100 people have showed up to each one. Only a handful already knew about new state rules.
Representatives from the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) will attend the next meeting in August to explain the CSD formation process.
Local attorney Chip Wulbrandt said the Los Olivos Business Organization would welcome a CSD so the group can hand off bathroom duties and get back to its founding function — to promote tourism in the area.
For the past 20 or so years, LOBO members have scrounged up $4,000 a month to provide the public with five portable toilets in the center of town.
“Businesses don’t want to let customers use bathrooms,” said Wulbrandt, a LOBO board member and partner with Price, Postel and Parma. “More and more stores don’t want to have people using the bathrooms unless you’re the customer.”
Restaurants have the worst go of it, he said, worrying toilets will back up since there are only so many places to use the restroom between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.
LOBO also handles some street sweeping and flag pole maintenance.
Talk of a CSD has been going on for years, but everyone seems more confident in this go-around, including Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents the valley.
“It’s coincidental but not necessarily surprising that the two unincorporated areas in my district who don’t have a CSD are now interested in forming one for different issues,” Farr said, mentioning Isla Vista’s ongoing efforts to form a district via legislation.
The drought has been another catalyst, she said, since a sewer system could provide residents with recycled water.
“I have been concerned for a long time that if the community of Los Olivos didn’t make progress on their own toward a sewer system … the regional water control board would dictate one,” Farr said. “I’m more optimistic now that there’s a lot more momentum and interest in the community in finding a permanent solution.”
Organizers have commissioned their own sewer system study to see whether it gels with findings in a county-conducted report from 2013.
The LAFCO process could take about a year, including public meetings and a vote during a special election or in November 2016, with a CSD funded via a property tax or grants.
Herthel, whose family moved to Los Olivos in 1969, said the community is made up of more than just retirees. Young families and those who grew up there keep coming back — all with an eye on the future.
“At some point there will be a problem if we’re not proactive,” he said. “We’re excited. We’re on the right track.”