A Lompoc grease trap law that has been at the center of some controversy after city staff began re-enforcing the decades-old municipal code was put under the spotlight at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Lompoc City Council.
The council reviewed the ordinance, which requires businesses that generate substances that could be harmful to the city’s sewer lines to have grease traps or interceptors installed, as a discussion-only item with no action taken. That conversation took up much of Tuesday’s meeting. The council also declined to even discuss potentially resurrecting the controversial Lompoc Valley Motorsports Park Project, which has remained in a comatose state — not technically dead, but also not active — since late 2017.
The city’s grease trap issue, which was brought to the council at the request of Councilman Jim Mosby, became a public topic of conversation late last year when the city began making attempts to get all of Lompoc’s food establishments into compliance with the law, which has been on the municipal books for 56 years. Some business owners have said they felt they didn’t need the grease interceptors, however, and at least one has accused city staff of harassment and threats and has refused to comply with the policy.
Ultimately, the council members seemed to agree that the law needed to be enforced — though Mosby raised some concerns about which businesses should be subject to that enforcement — but both the council and the city’s utility director acknowledged that the city could do a better job of working with local businesses on becoming compliant.
“All I’m trying to get at with this is to try to help us do better,” Mosby said during the 45-minute discussion.
The city’s grease trap/interceptor ordinance was first implemented in 1963 and updated in the past decade, according to city staff.
The relevant section of the municipal code states:
“Traps/interceptors to capture grease, oil, lint, hair, and/or sand shall be provided when, in the opinion of the [Utility] Director, they are necessary for the protection of the wastewater system from liquid wastes containing excessive amounts of grease, flammable wastes, sand, or other harmful ingredients. Such traps/interceptors may be required, for discharges from service stations, restaurants, automobile repair garages, wash racks, laundries, barbershops, beauty shops, and dry cleaning establishments and other facilities as deemed necessary by the [Utility] Director.”
Brad Wilkie, the city’s utility director, said Tuesday that he felt the traps or interceptors should have been required for new businesses as part of the licensing process over the past five decades, but that wasn't the case.
The ordinance was brought to the forefront recently after the city sent a survey to each of Lompoc's 134 food establishments last year to find out if those establishments had a grease trap or interceptor installed. The survey was disseminated at the recommendation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to Wilkie.
Of those 134 establishments, 28 were found to be in violation of the ordinance, city staff reported.
Getting everyone into compliance is critical, according to a city staff report, because the city is required to follow EPA guidelines in order to maintain its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit required by the state.
“Failure to comply with its NPDES permit will subject the city to fines of up to $10,000 per day or the possible shutdown of the Lompoc Regional Wastewater Reclamation Plant,” read a portion of the staff report, which also noted other potential negative impacts, including high costs and possible business closures resulting from sewer line replacements, sewage backups into homes and businesses, and even potential litigation from compliant businesses that take issue with other businesses not being forced to comply.
In an attempt to achieve 100-percent compliance, the city began sending letters to businesses in November 2018 that asked the owners to come up with a plan to become compliant and then contact city staff within 10 days. After that, notices of violation were sent out or hand-delivered to the 18 businesses that either did not respond or refused to comply.
The city reported Tuesday that just four businesses have still not responded and that one had indicated it would not comply.
Charles Sommer, whose mother owns P.J.’s Deli, is among those who have spoken out against the enforcement.
Sommer had said at previous council meetings that he felt like his mother was being harassed by the city and that it was his opinion that grease traps were not necessary at an establishment like his mother’s deli that uses little to no grease.
A letter dated Jan. 4 that was sent to P.J.’s Deli and signed by City Manager Jim Throop stated that noncompliance could result in criminal misdemeanors punishable by imprisonment of up to six months and by a fine of $1,000 for each offense. Further, it stated that each day represented a different offense, meaning that a week of noncompliance would result in $7,000 in fines. It goes on to note that fines could reach as high as $50,000 per day.
Sommer said he doesn't believe those fines are enforceable since the city does not have a specific fine schedule within the ordinance.
“I think it is irresponsible for the city to go the route of fining private businesses for something that they can't legally implement due to a lack of policy in place,” Sommer said Monday, before Tuesday’s council discussion. “By threatening local businesses to install an apparatus that is not needed is opening themselves up for litigation.
"P.J.'s Deli has never had an issue with line stoppage or (hindering) sewage treatment," he added. "It is in my opinion that if the city cannot prove that an individual business is in violation of the [state plumbing code] they cannot mandate the installation of a grease trap.”
That argument, in essence, was made Tuesday night by Mosby, who seemed to take issue with that fact that all food establishments were deemed to need the grease traps, rather than having the enforcement based on any particular incidents or types of food preparation.
“If we have a definite finding of fact, then I completely support this,” Mosby said of the enforcement.
Mosby also raised concern about city staff not detailing the appeals process — an appeal can be made to city staff and then to the City Council — in the letters that went out to business owners.
“We could have done a better job of putting that into the notice,” Wilkie said in response to Mosby’s questioning. “The notice doesn’t necessarily technically have to include that, but we could have done a better job of doing that."
On Thursday, Sommer notified the city that P.J.'s Deli was appealing the violation notice on the grounds that food preparation at the restaurant doesn't involve cooking and, therefore, doesn't introduce fats, oils and grease into the sewer lines.
"Please note that if the appeal is rejected, P.J.'s Deli will appeal to the City Clerk to bring this matter in front of City Council," Sommer concluded in his message to city administrators.
While there was no action taken on the policy, others on the council seemed to agree that the situation could have been handled better by the city.
“I think if our approach as a city is that we want to be a business-friendly city, I think that we owe it to our residents and our local businesses to approach them in a manner where we try to educate them and let them know the reasons why we are now coming to do something that hasn’t been required of them to do in the past 20 to 30 years,” Councilwoman Gilda Cordova said. “If we take that approach and we’re able to give them resources, then we really, truly become that business-friendly city.”
The city's four-page staff report notes that the majority of small restaurants, which do not produce a lot of grease, can install an under-sink interceptor that costs an average of about $260. The cost for installation, which would be in addition to the product expense, would be dependent upon the plumber chosen by the business.
"This is not unreasonable, and should not put anyone out of business," read the staff report.
Councilman Dirk Starbuck recused himself from the discussion, since he has an ownership stake in the property where P.J.'s Deli is located.
In separate action — or non-action, as it were — the council opted not to bring back any discussion regarding the embattled Motorsports Park Project.
The project has remained dormant, at least as far as the city is concerned, since the council directed staff to terminate its Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, with the project organizers in December 2017.
Throop asked the council Tuesday if it would like a new staff report, which could include options for seeking out new state grant funding or a new MOU, related to the project to discuss at a future meeting.
Only Mosby and Starbuck supported having that report prepared, while Mayor Jenelle Osborne, Councilman Victor Vega and Cordova remained silent. Since there was not at least three votes of support, the message to Throop was to not pursue the report.
The next meeting of the Lompoc City Council is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at Lompoc City Hall, 100 Civic Center Plaza.