North and South County Supes Spar over Future of Ag Land

by Martha Sadler

Joni Gray did everything in her power as chair of the Board of Supervisors, including repeatedly interrupting 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, to prevent him from raising questions about the county’s new plans for its agricultural lands at the board meeting on Tuesday. Her determination to quash discussion only fueled suspicions among South County environmentalists that North County interests are attempting to execute a sleight of hand to produce gigantic changes in land-use policy before the South County notices what’s going on.

Some of the proposed changes causing concern among South County watchdogs are included in the highly public housing element of the General Plan. Others have been discussed at length in meetings of the Cattlemen’s Association and the Agricultural Advisory Commission. However, their combined effect has never been presented to the public. This is what Carbajal was asking for, on behalf of mostly South County constituents opposed to commercial and housing development in the agricultural north.

Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno was right behind Gray, referring to “fear and hysteria and people stirring up fear and hysteria.” Centeno was probably not talking about Carbajal, who appeared only mildly annoyed by the numerous rough interruptions. Although he didn’t mention any names, Centeno might have been referring to Cameron Benson, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center. Benson was among the first to start piecing together the various land-use policy changes coming from various directions to see what they looked like. He’s made no secret of his conclusion that, with 90 percent of the county’s privately owned land in agriculture, these changes could drastically alter the county’s complexion — and not only in the North County, but all the way down through Carpinteria’s flower farms.

The greatest fear of South Coast environmentalists is that North County farmers and ranchers are eager to cash out of agriculture by developing their land. Yet the ostensible — or actual — purpose of virtually all of the changes in the pipeline is to make it financially possible for farms and ranches to survive. One of these changes is to be found in the housing element, which will now allow four new residential units, for housing agricultural workers, on each of the thousands of ag parcels in the county. However, critics wonder how and for how long their exclusive use by farmworkers will be enforced. Another section of the housing element allows an additional unit for the landowner’s extended family — grown children who will eventually take over ranch operations, for example. To illustrate the kinds of temptations to which landowners might be subject, a cottage at the Alisal Guest Ranch rents for $560 nightly.

A second big piece of the picture is the Uniform Rules for Agricultural Preserves. This will smooth the way for agriculture-related businesses such as processing plants. Add to that proposed new Home Occupation rules which would allow commercial and industrial enterprises unrelated to agriculture on ag land. In other jurisdictions, for example, car repair businesses have easily operated within such strictures. Another change recommended by the Agricultural Advisory Committee is “permit downshifting,” which would mean more “over-the-counter” permitting with less environmental or public review.

Carbajal managed to schedule for the December 5 meeting an informational presentation on the cumulative effects of all the proposed changes to agricultural land-use policy. And not a moment too soon: the informational session will be presented either before or after an item already scheduled for the same agenda, which will ask the supervisors to approve the Uniform Rules.

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