Neighborhood fights to keep coastal town alive

The Associated Press
Tuesday June 26, 2001

AVILA BEACH — A 12-year fight is over for a handful of residents bent on sparing this once-doomed 50-acre oasis on the central California coast from oblivion. 

In its heyday, the village of Avila Beach attracted beachgoers and tourists by the thousands with its Bohemian charm and sun-soaked sands. 

But lurking beneath the enclave was a spreading petroleum plume from damaged oil pipelines that threatened the health and safety of its 350 residents. 

The village had to be destroyed in 1999 to save it. 

Now, the three-block-long, three-block-wide town is rising from the goo — thanks to the perseverance of a handful of people who battled a stymied bureaucracy to get their town back. 

“Avila really got cleaned up because of about four or five people who were real tenacious,” said Peg Pinard, the San Luis Obispo County supervisor who deserves much of the credit for pinning down the bureaucrats. 

The entire commercial beachfront was demolished in 1999, a decade after it was learned that a 400,000-gallon petroleum plume bulged beneath the town. Before being decommissioned, the Unocal pipelines carried up to 2 million barrels of oil a month from hillside tanks to wharf tankers. 

After the discovery, it took a decade for Unocal to work out legal settlements with business owners and bureaucrats clearing the way for relocations and demolition. The $18 million agreement also paid for community service and recreation projects to benefit remaining residents. 

No one questioned the solution: The town had to go. 

“There was no other way to save it. They had to tear it down,” Pinard said. But many in the community weren’t interested in bidding farewell with a Unocal buyout. 

Dig down 30 feet, scoop away the contamination and replace it with clean sand and terra firma, they said. They wanted to rebuild and resume the role as a beach tourist destination 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles. 

“I knew that it needed help and I’m a fighter. I could see people weren’t being treated fairly,” said Pinard. Her brow still furls at the mention of state roadblocks that led to delay after delay after delay. 

The California Coastal Commission was the toughest. Battles centered on parking, road closures, the boardwalk, and apartments over stores on Front Street. 

Reconstruction was ready to begin, with businesses expecting to reopen this summer, when state fire authorities stalled it further because they wouldn’t sign off on building permits because there wasn’t enough water pressure to fight a fire. 

Then, the activists battled the state Department of Fish and Game over construction of a new water tank for fire suppression. 

Unocal eventually trucked away 300,000 cubic yards of contaminated dirt, spokesman Derek Aney said. 

The battles are now in the past. 

Archie McLaren was there from the beginning. 

“It was 12 years of excruciating and painful work,” said McLaren, who steers the Front Street Enhancement Committee. 

Beachgoers now sprawl thigh-to-thigh on bleach-white sand imported from the Santa Maria River bed and wander the palm-lined concrete boardwalk dividing the sand and what will be the Front Street business district. 

At the moment, there’s nowhere to get a burger, fries or a beer. The closest watering holes are The Olde Port Inn and Fat Cats, about a mile down the road in Port San Luis. 

But there is a park on the western edge of town and a 996-space parking lot is walking distance from the sand. 

“The weather is always nice here, nice and sunny,” said vacationing sun-worshipper Norma Conner of the San Bernardino County community of Mentone.  

She has migrated to Avila Beach for years and admits she doesn’t really miss the rustic Front Street shops. But she’s looking forward to the new structures rising from a pit nearby. 

The Avila Beach population of 350 is now about 119. 

“Two-thirds of the people took the (relocation) money and left,” said Seamus Slattery, chairman of the Avila Valley Advisory Committee. 

Although six to nine months late, sand has been broken on some businesses. 

The foundation for Beachcomber Bill’s is already in place and owner Bill Price expects to open next spring.  

The Sea Barn, Custom House and Mr. Rick’s Bar and Grill are returning to Front Street and the San Luis Yacht Club is now at the foot of the pier. A 53-room hotel is on the drawing board. 

“I think the town is going to develop in stages,” Pinard said. “I think we are going to end up with a beautiful little place here.” 

Some old-timers are concerned the rebirth could bring congestion with too many tourists overwhelming the place. 

“They are very anxious to get back in business and a businessman wants a steady business. But you want people to come in waves, not in tsunamis,” she said.  

“In the end, though, I think it is coming out OK.”