In bureaucracy, as in all things, you need to be careful what you ask for. A voluntary reformatting of the county’s land use and development codes — first embarked upon nearly a decade ago in the name of prudence — now has the county supervisors locked squarely in a contest of wills with the California Coastal Commission. Tentatively scheduled to be heard by the commission at their meeting early next month, the subject was tackled by the supes for the second time in as many weeks this Tuesday. They struggled to find common ground between the updates drafted and publically vetted by their staff, and the stated wants and wishes of the commission and their respective staffs. “I look at this as an attempt on the part of the Coastal Commission to usurp the responsibilities and the authority of the Board of Supervisors to determine land use issues in our county,” summed up the 5th District’s Joe Centeno, before adding, “I don’t know when I have ever received more anger from our citizens than when they learned about what is happening here.”
The drama began at last week’s supervisors’ meeting, as county staffers, aiming to get ready for the upcoming Coastal Commission meeting, brought forward several areas of contention between the county’s plan and things the commission’s staff said it would like changed so as to give the plan the best chance of being approved by the commission’s committee when it goes to a vote. Officially charged with protecting the coastal resources of the state, the commission had been working with the county off and on since October 2009 — despite having received the county’s application for the changes in late 2006 — to work out several significant suggested modifications to the land use codes as they pertain to the coastal area. Ranging from big to small and, in some cases, working to expand the commission’s appeal power over county decisions, these requests included requiring property owners of agricultural land to apply for a coastal development permit (CDP) if they wish to “intensify” or change the nature of their ag operations (i.e., switch from row crops to orchards, run more head of cattle, etc.); limiting the size of a primary residence on coastal ag land to 3,000 square feet; deleting school and nonprofits from the allowable uses of ag-zoned land in the coastal zone; requiring a CDP and public hearings for voluntary lot line adjustments, subdivisions, and lot mergers; classifying habitat restoration as a “non-principal” use of land and thus requiring a CDP and related hearings; and making all staircases to the beach on private land illegal unless they are for the sole purpose of public access.
Particularly troubling for the agricultural community, the recommendations from the commission’s staff were anything but popular at the meeting. In fact, a broad cross-section of constituents who don’t normally find themselves fighting on the same side of things — including staunch property rights advocates, right-wing ranchers, land use lawyers, and longtime enviro-activists — lined up to decry the Costal Commission’s desires and cry foul about the process that, until last week, allowed for minimal public input. Gaviota rancher Guner Tautrim, a member of the ongoing county-sanctioned Gaviota Planning Advisory Committee, summed up a majority of the speakers when he told the supes that, while he is often a fan of the Coastal Commission’s work, “These modifications will stifle agriculture at a time when the overall attitude of the community is that we should be incentivizing local sustainable agriculture.”
Interestingly enough, before Tuesday’s hearing, county staffers met once again with Coastal Commission folks to go over the various questions and concerns voiced at last week’s meeting by the public and, according to County Planning and Development’s Dianne Black, the commission’s representatives expressed, to various degrees, a willingness to compromise on many of the areas of contention. “They certainly seemed more flexible with some of the issues, and I think we are getting much closer [to a compromise],” Black told the supes.
In the end, the supervisors — all of whom expressed concern with the commission’s recommendations and the process by which these desires have been passed along to the county after their staff spent nearly five years holding meetings, public workshops, and working to develop the reformatting — voted unanimously to have the subject return once again on July 27 to allow for a proper public dissection of the most recent revised recommendations before considering the specifics of how they wish to proceed before the scheduled August 11 and 12 Coastal Commission hearings in San Luis Obispo.