Planners are pushing the limits of legal setbacks

In land use, a setback is the distance which a building or other structure is set back from a street or road, a river or other stream, a shore or flood plain, or any other place which is deemed to need protection. Depending on the jurisdiction, other things like fences, landscaping, septic tanks, and various potential hazards or nuisances might be regulated. In the case of the sewer plant that a small group of concerned residents in Woodacre want to build in San Geronimo Valley, setbacks refer to the placement of the sewer plant, placement of the storage ponds and the distance between where reclaimed water is being sprayed and those land features that require protection from contaminants found in reclaimed water. Title 22, the state’s rules around reclaimed water use, define setbacks for this project. They are:

  • A sewer plant may not be located closer than 100 feet from a flowing stream
  • A sewer plant may not be located closer than 50 feet from an ephemeral stream
  • A sewer plant may not be located closer than 200 feet from a lake or reservoir
  • A storage pond may not be located closer than 100 feet from a flowing stream
  • A storage pond may not be located closer than 100 feet from an ephemeral stream
  • A storage pond may not be located closer than 200 feet from a lake or reservoir
  • Irrigation may not occur closer than 25 feet from a flowing stream
  • Irrigation may not occur closer than 50 feet from an ephemeral stream
  • Irrigation may not happen closer than 25 feet from the property line
  • Irrigation may not occur closer than 200 feet from a lake or reservoir

Questa Engineering, the county and the small group of concerned citizens who want to build the sewer plant are pushing the limits of setback requirements. First, they have chosen to place the sewer plant exactly 100 feet from San Geronimo Creek. That’s the same creek that this entire project is trying to protect to begin with. While some may find irony here, this should be alarming. It means that any spills at the sewer plant will immediately find their way into the creek. It also means that if the creek were to flood in this location it could inundate the sewer plant, knock it offline and bring untreated sewage back into the creek.

More complicated is the process of spraying the San Geronimo Golf Course with reclaimed water. Community members who have played the golf course or walked it’s paths know that the San Geronimo Creek bisects the front nine and that there are numerous ephemeral creeks that crisscross the course. Trying to figure our where reclaimed water can be used will be difficult if not impossible. If it can be done it will require a complex irrigation plumbing system that brings reclaimed water only to select location on the course.

It’s also important to note the 200 foot setback between irrigation and fresh water reservoirs. The fresh water ponds on the golf course are actually storage ponds that currently collect water from MMWD for irrigation use. Is these fresh water ponds are contaminated with reclaimed water, that water could no longer be used to water areas of the course that include flowing streams, ephemeral streams, property lines, or the fresh water ponds themselves. Another thing to note about the fresh water ponds is that they aren’t lined and they regularly overflow into the San Geronimo creek during wet winters. Yes, it gets pretty complicated. Maybe even impossible. Yet, the small group of concerned citizens from Woodacre who want to build a sewer plant have no such concerns. In conversations with them, they regularly brush aside these concerns and assure people that it can be done. One thing that’s surprising about their cavalier attitude is that they often sound more concerned about getting the sewer plant built than protecting our waterways — which was the original reason for investigating a solution for Woodacre’s septic system issues.

Finally, one setback issue not addressed is a sludge dewatering, drying and storage area 100 feet from the San Geronimo Creek. This is an open-air location. Will dried sludge will make its way into the air and eventually into the creek, onto the golf course, or worse, spread to local residences. It’s conveniently overlooked in the Questa Engineering report.