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

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.”


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