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San Luis Obispo County: Building Public Support for Needed Infrastructure

Case Story

Community: San Luis Obispo County

Population: 265,297

Summary

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, his staff, and public works staff from the county have embarked on an unprecedented civic engagement effort during the past two years in order to gather public input and support for a long needed community wastewater system in the unincorporated community of Los Osos, which is currently served entirely by septic tanks.

Program Highlights

  • The board of supervisors appointed a 14 member technical advisory committee composed of community residents to study relevant issues in depth, consult the greater community, and advise the board.
  • County staff sent out informational brochures and surveys to all affected households. They also used a project website to share data about technology alternatives and possible site locations and to collect resident input.

Lessons Learned

  • Having “office hours” where any interested resident or group of residents can have an informal dialogue helps county officials and staff be more in tune with specific issues that residents have with the project.
  • Engaging residents one-on-one and in small groups at community events can help get more resident participation.

Resources to Learn More

  •  Contact San Luis Obispo Department of Public Works Project Manager John Waddell, jwaddell@co.slo.ca.us or call 805-788-2713.

The Rest of the Story…

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, his staff, and county public works staff recently undertook a lengthy, ambitious and successful civic engagement effort launched in 2008 in order to gather public input and support for a long needed community wastewater system in the unincorporated community of Los Osos, which is currently served entirely by septic tanks. “The county board of supervisors and department of public works didn’t want to pick a technology or solution and just move forward with it- we wanted to explore a wide range of options for technologies and plant location, and then work with the community to figure out the final details of the project,” said public works project manager John Waddell. The board of supervisors appointed a fourteen member technical advisory committee composed of community residents to study relevant issues in depth, consult the greater community, and advise the board. There was a lot of controversy around the plant in the community, so the committee was asked to give the pros and cons of each alternative that the board needed to consider. Small and large public meetings were held that involved between ten and two-hundred residents.

Realizing that a significant portion of affected residents might be put off by possibly contentious public meetings, and that under State Proposition 218 a new tax required to fund the plan needed to be put to a vote of affected property holders, county staff got creative in their outreach efforts. They engaged residents one-on-one and in small groups at community events, and sent out informational brochures and surveys to all affected households. They also used a project website to share data about technology alternatives and possible site locations and to collect resident input. In addition, County Supervisor Bruce Gibson holds twice monthly “office hours” where any interested resident or group of residents is invited to participate in an intimate, informal dialogue with Gibson and county staff. According to Waddell, this dialogue helps county officials and staff to be more in tune with specific issues that people and groups have around the project, and it gives those who feel their voice hasn’t been heard the opportunity to speak directly to their elected official.

After a year of community engagement efforts, 80 percent of Los Osos property owners voted in favor of a nearly $25,000 per home tax assessment that will help pay for the new wastewater system, which Gibson hopes to break ground on in 2010.

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