The posturing continued in earnest this week in the power struggle between the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and the California Coastal Commission. With the latter scheduled to deliberate on a series of long overdue S.B.-specific land use code updates later this month, the former heard a report Tuesday on the status of staff-level negotiations between the two government entities.
Though mostly in agreement, the two sides are hung up by a handful of coastal zone land use wants and wishes that the commission’s staff feels the county needs to include in its update for it to make the grade. Even worse, these requirements, which would work to intensify certain parts of the permitting process for always touchy topics like agriculture, cattle grazing, and development on ag-zoned land near the beach, are considered by many in the community to be flagrant—and potentially damaging—usurping of local government’s authority. After more than four hours of discussion and public testimony, the supes voted unanimously to send a letter to the Coastal Commission (CC) telling it in no uncertain terms that unless the commission is willing to meet the county in the middle, there is the distinct possibility that the supes will respond by pulling the plug on all the updates altogether. “They have come a long way but it is still not far enough,” opined 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal about the ongoing negotiations with the commission. “It is time to let them know what they are up against.”
The can of worms was opened nearly a decade ago when the county, at its own behest, began working to update its land use and development codes. Included in this was an effort to bring those rules and regulations governing land in the coastal zone into compliance with the state’s preservation-minded Coastal Act. The ultimate defenders of 1976’s Coastal Act, the Coastal Commission was asked back in 2006 to conduct a simple sign-off on the code reformatting. It wasn’t until late fall 2009 that a mostly unexpected bomb—which critics consider a “power grab”—was dropped. As Carbajal put it this week, after an unnecessarily long and less than transparent waiting period, “[The CC] took the opportunity to require us to make many, many modifications, some of which we would be the first in the state to adopt.”
Specifically, the commission’s staff wants, among other things, to see a coastal development permit (CDP)—which typically costs at least $1,000 and sometimes requires a public hearing or two depending on the circumstances—required for all new or altered grazing operations in the coastal zone as well as for new or altered agriculture cultivation (i.e. vineyards, crops, or orchards) if the related grading has a volume in excess of 50 cubic yards. A CDP would also be required for keeping large animals (such as horses or goats) on residential land where they haven’t historically been kept. And even if you have historically had a horse or two (something which is still entirely legal), you would potentially need to secure a CDP for the foal should those animals procreate. Other points of contention include a commission desire to see no new schools on ag-zoned plots in the coastal zone, no new private-use beach staircases (and limited repair allowed for existing ones), and a permitting process that allows primary residences on ag land to enjoy “unappealable” status only if they are 5,000 square feet or less.
“Suffice it to say, these modifications will be devastating to cattle ranches and agriculture, especially the family-run farms and ranches,” testified Santa Barbara Cattleman’s Association President Paul McEnroe during public comment, and he wasn’t alone. In fact, the majority of the nearly 50 public speakers on Tuesday afternoon, which included various homeowners associations, real estate agents, ranchers, farmers, and volunteers currently serving on County Planning advisory committees spoke out in strong opposition to the CC’s suggestions—a fact that was not lost on the supervisors. The lone voices of support for the modifications came from the environmental community, specifically the Environmental Defense Center, which urged the supes to remember the overarching environmental importance of actually having a land use code in compliance with the Coastal Act and the fact that failure to do so would result in a future where any and all permits in the coastal zone, no matter how big or small, could be appealable to the Coastal Commission.
The Coastal Commission is scheduled to discuss the subject at its November 18 meeting in Santa Monica at which time commissioners will have the opportunity to either hear the chest-thumping of the supes and ease up on the demands championed by their staff or stick to their guns and continue to require the county to implement the controversial modifications. For their part, the supervisors, along with the aforementioned letter, will be sending the 3rd District’s Doreen Farr to the meeting and will wait until December to revisit the debate and perhaps decide once and for all if the last 10 years of planning and processing have all been for naught.