San Diego City Council members, hoping to avoid a potential $800,000 fine for water pollution, Tuesday extended by six weeks a moratorium on building permits in the area served by trouble-ridden Pump Station 64 in Sorrento Valley.
To the chagrin of developers, the council voted, 7-1, to extend until April 21 a building permit moratorium on the northern tier of the city that went into effect immediately after the record sewage spill last week from the station near where Interstates 5 and 805 merge.
A pipe leading from the station broke Thursday morning, forcing the city to shut the facility down and permit 20 million gallons of raw sewage to spew into Los Penasquitos Lagoon before repairs were made Friday morning. City officials said the breakdown was caused after the station experienced three momentary power interruptions, causing sewage to back up and put pressure on the outgoing pipe.
The spill was the 60th--and largest--from the pump station since 1979, a record that state water pollution officials have termed abysmal. On Monday, the Regional Water Quality Control Board voted to hold a hearing on May 4 to discuss the spill and assess any fines.
Because of the problems with Pump Station 64, the council some time ago passed an ordinance whereby a building permit moratorium automatically goes into effect whenever there is a significant spill; it remains in force until lifted by the council.
The city may be facing an $800,000 fine, as well as other penalties, for the latest spill, said David Barker, a senior engineer for the water quality agency. The $800,000 penalty was part of a $1.5-million fine imposed by the water board for a Thanksgiving Day spill from the station, but was held in abeyance as long as the facility operated without another spill. The November mishap was caused by human error.
On Tuesday, City Manager John Lockwood urged council members to rescind the automatic moratorium and allow his staff to issue building permits as long as developers agree not to hook up to the sewer system until November at the earliest. In that month, the city is scheduled to install a larger set of pumps at the station as part of a $20-million upgrading of the beleaguered facility.
Lockwood had imposed that condition on developers Jan. 20, when calculations by his staff showed that the outstanding building permits in the Pump Station 64 area represented 21 million gallons a day--500,000 gallons a day more than the facility's capacity.
But council members, eager to impress water pollution officials, went Lockwood one better, voting instead to extend the total building permit moratorium until April 21. They settled on the date apparently under the mistaken impression that the water quality board was going to meet on April 20.
Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, whose district includes Pump Station 64 and many of the burgeoning neighborhoods it serves, said she believed the council action was "intelligent" and a "show of good faith."
"If we attempted to lift the moratorium today, the water quality board may not have been lenient with us when they meet on the 20th of April," said Wolfsheimer, who along with Councilman Mike Gotch asked for the extended moratorium.
Wolfsheimer, who attributed the station's difficulties to the application of new engineering to an outdated system, also credited the heavy media coverage of last week's spill for swaying her colleagues.
"There was reality to the coverage," she said. "The council understood what spewing sewage was. It was very graphic--not pleasant, but very graphic."
Pump Station 64's unreliability was also underscored by testimony during Tuesday's meeting. Lynn Benn, president of the Torrey Pines Planning Group, said that over the years, the station has spilled 82 million gallons of sewage into the lagoon.
And Kathleen Zaworski-Burke, of the Homeowners of Penasquitos Assn., told council members that the station was "synonymous with failure."
"Let's face it: Pump Station 64 is a lemon," she said.
The lone vote against extending the moratorium was Councilman Bill Cleator, who argued the ban would hurt small builders.
"I think it sounds good, I think it makes good press and you certainly pleased this audience out here. But I just can't believe it! I just can't believe it!" said Cleator, who fumed openly and even pounded his desk during some of his comments.
Councilwoman Celia Ballesteros missed the vote because she was in Washington on city business.
Kim Kilkenny, legislative counsel for the Construction Industry Federation, said he was "disappointed and surprised" by the council action.
Since Lockwood imposed his conditional moratorium in January, developers haven't obtained any more building permits, said Kilkenny. The extension of a full moratorium by the council into April, he said, will mean the loss of two months' worth of construction in burgeoning areas such as North City West, Penasquitos, Sorrento Valley, Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch.
Kilkenny estimated that there will be 1,800 to 2,000 jobs lost during the two months--a ramification that will not be felt right away.
"Somewhere, sometime, there is going to be a loss of jobs because someone is not going to be able to move on a project," he said. "It's nothing you'll see and be able to point and say, 'Hey, this guy lost his job because of this.'
"But you know that . . . two months of work are not going to happen, that many people will be out of work," Kilkenny said.
After the meeting, Chief Deputy City Attorney Ted Bromfield said the moratorium prevents builders from obtaining building permits, but still allows permits for home remodeling or the completion of interior and exterior construction on an already erected building shell.
Bromfield said that the moratorium does not affect builders who already have their permits. They will be allowed to proceed with construction and connection to the sewage system as normal.
Lockwood said the moratorium does not include the cities of Del Mar and Poway, which send their sewage through Pump Station 64 for treatment at the city's Point Loma wastewater plant. But Poway, which accounts for most of the outside sewage, has recently enacted a building permit moratorium of its own for reasons unrelated to Pump Station 64, officials said.
Lockwood told council members that the pipe that broke about half a mile from Pump Station 64 last week was 17 years old, relatively young for hardware normally expected to last 50 years. He also said there were signs of corrosion on the outside.
Barker said the evidence of corrosion prompted his agency to request a report from the city on the physical condition of the rest of the sewage line leading from the station, as well as the causes of Thursday's spill.
Noting that city officials have blamed last week's spill on momentary power interruptions to Pump Station 64, Barker said such facilities should be designed to "withstand the increased pressure surges that occur in the forcemain pipe." But Barker added that he and other staff members for the water control board are awaiting more information before suggesting sanctions, if any, against the city.