Debate Rages over Agricultural Policy Reform
by Ethan Stewart
It took nearly a year, but 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone finally gave his Santa Ynez Valley constituents the Uniform Rules public workshop they’ve been asking for. More than 100 landowners, farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists turned out Tuesday night at the Veterans’ Memorial Building in Solvang to listen to Firestone and county staff spell out the details of the proposed Uniform Rules changes and their implications for the approximately 550,000 acres of local Williamson Act agricultural land they govern. The two-and-a-half hour hearing was meant to be part lecture and part question-and-answer, but the meeting quickly degenerated into a broad and often heated discussion about the future of agriculture — similar to a county supervisors’ hearing on the same subject last week. Most vocal were critics who claim county policy has undergone a shift that could open the door for the development of traditional open spaces.
Uniform Rules are the county codes that govern what types of building and practices are permissible on Williamson Act land. Since the mid ’60s, the Williamson Act has provided tax breaks for farmers willing to enter into 10-year renewable contracts with the state’s Department of Conservation (DOC); the contracts stipulate that the landowners will keep their land in agriculture in exchange for the tax benefits. However, these rules haven’t been updated since 1984, and after a 2001 DOC audit of the county found them to be insufficient, the road toward reform began. Along the way, taking into account the many ways that local ag has changed in the past two decades and the fact that more and more landowners are opting out of Williamson Act contracts — according to the county, more than 44,000 acres are slated to be removed from such contracts in the next 10 years — the potential reforms ultimately went beyond the DOC’s mandates.
Looking to make Williamson Act contracts more attractive to farmers — and subsequently less restricted — the new rules include a laundry list of tweaks that allow, amongst other things, the development of one or two additional family homes on parcels over 100 acres; the running of guest ranches or guest farms on parcels over 40 acres; and expanded ag support facilities for things like processing, cooling, and composting. As Firestone explained it, “What we’re doing is moving contracted land a little closer to normal land — but not much. The program [the Williamson Act] has been slipping and we can’t let it …. It has been our best tool for protecting agriculture.” Supporters of the rule changes are quick to point out that a worst-case development scenario would equal no more than 233 new residential units spread out over 441 acres throughout the thousands of Williamson Act parcels in Santa Barbara County.
But opponents of the rule changes argue that decisions are being made too fast and without proper examination of possible long-term effects. Citing the six Class 1 unmitigatable environmental impacts identified in the Uniform Rules’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) — those that affect water supply, traffic, air quality, and visual resources — and the fact that the county is currently working on 19 other ag-related policy projects, critics are demanding a cumulative environmental analysis of all 20 projects before the supervisors make up their minds on the Uniform Rules changes. “This meeting is woefully inadequate. It doesn’t begin to address the issues we have,” former Firestone advisor Bob Fields argued. “No one has looked at the impacts of the other proposals and no one has looked at the combined impacts.”
Last year, while serving as the chairperson of the Santa Ynez Valley Plan Advisory Committee, Fields was one of the first people to notice the bevy of agricultural policies being crafted by different county departments, including the general housing element, which could result in more than 1,000 new homes on farmland, and the Home Occupations Ordinance, which would pave the way for decidedly nonagricultural commerce on farm-zoned properties. Worried about the implications of these changes for the valley, Fields began lobbying Firestone for a public discussion about the various proposals. But after being rebuked for such requests four times since last February, Fields chose to resign in protest. “I got uncomfortable knowing what I knew and having to keep it from the public,” he explained on Tuesday night.
Fields’s move had its desired effect: Within a matter of weeks, not only had more than a dozen of Firestone’s advisors, aides, and appointees — including Judy Hale, David Smyser, Parker Montgomery, and Carol Herrera — all echoed Fields’s concerns to some degree, but the county’s Planning Commission and the Central Board of Architectural Review had also voted to express their reservations. This wave of worry seemed to culminate last week at the county supervisors’ meeting when, after a particularly contentious four-hour hearing, it was decided with a 3-2 vote that the Uniform Rules certification would come back on December 19 for final approval. The delay was designed to allow Firestone to have a workshop with his constituents. Ironically, it was South Coast supervisors Salud Carbajal and Susan Rose who voted against the two-week punt because they felt even more time and more environmental review were needed.
With Supervisors Joe Centeno and Joni Gray intimating their undying support for the Uniform Rules updates and Firestone’s conclusion on Tuesday that “there have been very few specific concerns about these changes,” the modifications seem poised to pass next week. However, the Department of Conservation — which has the last word on all matters related to the Williamson Act — has yet to offer its final take on the proposed changes. During the EIR process last year, the DOC weighed in with a seven-page letter detailing several concerns it had with the terms of the update — specifically, the guest ranches, second residential units, and processing facilities.
While county staff maintained last week that these issues had been resolved — a point Firestone repeated on Tuesday — DOC spokesperson Don Drysdale stated earlier this week after his staff had reviewed the revised update, “The Division of Land Resource Protection supports some of the county’s proposed changes. … However, some of the updated rules seem to conflict with statutory language or principles [of the Williamson Act].” And as Firestone himself said last Friday, “If there is substance to the DOC stuff and they have real issues, that’s a whole different ballgame and we’ll have to hold on.”