Reversal of Fortune

Supes Beat a Retreat on Controversial Ag Changes

by Ethan Stewart

city_council.jpgWith frustrations in full flare, the
gloves came off at the Santa Barbara County Supervisors’ meeting
late Tuesday afternoon as the board attempted yet again to take
action on the long-simmering proposed changes to the Uniform Rules,
which govern what can and cannot be built on 90 percent of all
privately owned county land. Conclusions proved elusive, however,
with 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone forced to recuse
himself from the debate due to a conflict of interest and an
ever-growing call from both North and South County residents and
various county agencies for additional environmental review. After
heated head-butting and bizarre consultations with staff and the
audience, the board did what seemed virtually impossible only two
months ago: It voted not only to recirculate the contentious
Environmental Impact Report (EIR), but also to hold a workshop
conducted by county staff to make sure the new EIR process gets it
right.

The supervisors’ change of heart was a hard-earned victory for
opponents who have been lobbying — some of them since early last
year — for a cumulative impact analysis of the 21 proposed
agricultural policy changes before the board moves forward with the
Uniform Rules update. But for supporters of the policy changes,
like Firestone and fellow supervisors Joe Centeno and Joni Gray,
the decision to put off any real action on the subject until this
summer was a bitter pill to swallow. As Gray angrily put it, “Quite
frankly, I think we’ve just been outmaneuvered by the South County
and people who don’t like to farm.”

Despite Gray’s statement, the issue is far removed from the
standard North versus South County debate. The complaints of former
Firestone appointee and onetime Santa Ynez Valley Planning Advisory
Committee Chair Bob Field, for example, indicate that the
disagreement is more about procedure and public disclosure than it
is about the proposed changes to the Uniform Rules themselves.
Field, who has been one of the leaders of the campaign to revisit
the EIR process, commented this week, “Personally, I’m in favor of
changes to the ag rules … It’s because the North County board
majority refused to give public hearings on this [the total impact
of the 21 projects] that we are here today.”

It appears the decidedly more development-friendly rules
updates, which supporters say are desperately needed to keep
financially pinched farmers afloat, have been caught in the
crossfire of a much bigger conflict and now won’t come before the
board again until June 26. Forced to eat a promise to constituents
late last year that he wouldn’t go “a day past [December] 18 to
approve these changes,” Supervisor Centeno no doubt voiced the
feelings of many farmers throughout the county when he lamented the
new delay. “The fact of the matter is that this thing has been
going on for four years,” he said. “And we’ve got people out there
that are getting hurt.”

Janet Wolf, 2nd District supervisor and board neophyte,
acknowledged the subject’s history and importance but also pointed
out that the Planning Commission unsuccessfully asked for a
cumulative review in November. Wolf also defended her call for
additional public workshops and environmental analysis, despite
sharp looks and vocal criticism from Supervisor Gray. “I’m not
trying to hold things back,” Wolf said. “It’s just that I’ve heard
again and again from the public that this issue has not been vetted
… This is huge, and I think it needs the time.”

It’s been more than a year since Field first suggested to
Firestone that all the various ag policy projects under development
be considered together in a long-term context and then presented to
the public. Now county staff has new marching orders to do just
that. Alluding to the upcoming public workshop on the subject and
the EIR recirculation that will follow, comprehensive planning
chief John McInnes outlined the work to be done in coming weeks,
saying, “We will address every one of the 21 projects and probably
others that haven’t been identified yet. And if they don’t have
potential to add impact, we will — at minimum — identify them and
say why they don’t add an impact.”

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