By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
Investigations by more than three state agencies have begun into the Pacific Shores California Water District.
The California Attorney Generals office, the California Coastal Commission, the Local Agency Formation Commission and, to some degree, Del Norte County, are asking why the Pacific Shores California Water District still exists and collects taxes after 14 years with no progress on its original goal: to get water and sewer facilities into the subdivision.
Theres a real question about the integrity of this facilities district. So many have lost faith and feel ripped-off, said Del Norte County Tax Collector Sarah Sampels, whose office processes the property and special assessment taxes the water district charges Pacific Shores property owners each year.
In question is whether the water district is spending tax money legally and whether the district is operating outside of the initial permit granted to it by the Coastal Commission.
Pacific Shores is a subdivision of 1,500 or so lots located on the sandy soils bordering both Lake Earl and the Pacific Ocean. The area was subdivided and sold to mostly southern California and Hawaii residents in the early 1960s.
None of the lots have been built on or developed. The instability of the soil, the fact that it must comply with Coastal Commission regulations and the fact that no water or sewer system has been installed are all reasons why theres been no development.
Members of the water district board say they havent made progress because government red tape is so impossible to get through. They insist they are working to develop the property, and in the process have stockpiled more than $1 million in tax money above and beyond their expenses.
In addition, the water district board meets in Southern California, far from the district over which it presides. Instead of providing services or doing studies to determine if services are feasible, the water district weighs in as a political entity and supports efforts to keep lake levels low by breaching the narrow sandbar that separates Lake Earl from the ocean.
Now some local advocates of protecting Lake Earls wetland say after 14 years its time to either act or quit taking peoples money for the singular task of draining the lake.
Local environmentalist Eileen Cooper and several others, testified before the California Coastal Commission at its Sept. 5 meeting about the district.
In her testimony, Cooper told the Coastal Commission the Pacific Shores Property Owners Association was originally granted a two-year permit to form a community services district in 1985.
It says: This permit authorizes a formation of a special district only for the limited purpose of financing and carrying out the special study ... Any assessment levied by this assessment levied by this district shall be limited to the amount required to undertake and complete the special study.
Sixteen years later, there is no record of a completed study. But there are records showing the water district is spending their assessment collections on lawyers to draw up a permit to breach Lake Earl, a permit the county and the state Department of Fish and Game are already in the process of obtaining.
James OConnell III, of southern California, is the president of the water board and said he still holds out hope the government red tape will be cut, making development possible.
He said part of that is finding a way to lower lake levels to keep Pacific Shores dry and free of flooded roads.
Cooper and others say even if Lake Earl waters no longer flood Pacific Shores, development would still be encumbered and the water district is still operating outside of its jurisdiction.
Another peculiar thing is there was a time limit set on their permit. Theres been no indication that a renewal or extension of that has been granted, said Cooper.
Pacific Shores Water District pays an attorney to go to each Coastal Commission meeting when breach permits are on topic all paid for by Pacific Shores taxpayers.
What they could have done was define a project, do the natural resources inventory and actually give these agencies and others something to discuss. They have never even defined a project, she added.
The September testimony and research presented by Cooper and 11 others to the Coastal Commission took the commissioners by surprise, according to Cooper.
They were shocked and surprised that it had fallen through the cracks, she said.
According to Deputy Attorney General Lisa Trankley, the Coastal Commission referred the case to her department.
They asked us to see whether there had been a violation of the permit, but since its ongoing, I dont want to say much about it, Trankley said.
The Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees and approves services district formations and annexations, is also sifting through PSWD (Pacific Shores Water District) files.
Weve requested some financial reports and we want to take a look at their original charter. Part of the problem is that were not sure who issued their original charter, said LAFCO Executive Officer Amy Beauchane.
On Monday, Nov. 19 LAFCO board members will discuss possible litigation with Pacific Shores Water District in its closed session.
LAFCO board member Clyde Eller said the board is concerned in its ability to obtain public records from the water district.
Trankley said shes not sure how long the investigation will take, what the possible repercussions of wrong doing are or what the entire scope of the inquiry will be.