Supes Beat a Retreat on Controversial Ag Changes
by Ethan Stewart
With 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.”