Ever go to do a job without the right tools, only to find the job takes twice as long, is full of headaches, and the results don’t turn out the same?
This was the outcome at the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisor’s Tuesday hearing. The board denied a 4,000-acre subdivision into 13 parcels on a 3-2 vote. Both North County supervisors recommended approval but the three South County supervisors seemed to want to squeeze more blood from the turnip. This was after a 14-year process whereby the applicant followed all the rules and still came up short. Why? Because a one-size-fits-all approach and single tool has been handed down by our policy-makers to do the job of managing agricultural resources.
Over 10 years ago, I found myself in my dream job — Santa Barbara County’s first agricultural land-use planner. The position was housed in the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, a governmental agency geared toward helping farmers and ranchers through the regulatory maze of pest control, protect against invasive plants and animals, and manage agricultural resources.
The position was appropriately placed in the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office to carry on the purpose of protecting agriculture as a valuable resource. The position was modeled after the program in San Luis Obispo that has been around for years.
Unfortunately, the position was moved to the Planning and Development Department. I chose not to follow due to my concern that the integrity and objective of the program could not be adequately served in Planning and Development. The position was eventually eliminated.
So, here we are 11 years later, still arm wrestling with what is right and good for agriculture. The latest defeat was visibly devastating to the owners who were trying to keep the farm in the family by creating more manageable parcels, ranging in size from 160 to 650 acres. The project met all of the environmental quality factors, studies and mitigations.
The staff presented a completed environmental impact report and findings for consistency with all zoning and land-use laws to the Planning Commission six weeks ago. The commission denied the project on a 3-2 vote, forcing staff to reverse their position and bring findings for denial to the Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor Steve Lavagnino asked: “What message are we sending if after more than 10 years of study, research and mitigation, with staff’s analysis and approval, we move the bar at the very end for no logical reason? This is not a good process.”
It is not a good process. There are not enough tools in this county to support our farmers and ranchers. One tool that is collecting dust on a shelf is the Agricultural Resource Environmental/Economic Assessment study, which shows that out of the 1,444 farms reported in 2002, only 205 were larger than 500 acres.
Given that our agricultural industry’s contribution to the local economy has grown from $775 million in 2002 to a reported $1.4 billion in 2016, we do a pretty good job farming on parcels under 500 acres.
The denial came down to the concern with urban sprawl on agricultural lands, comparing the project to five-acre parcels in Santa Ynez, 10-20-acre parcels in Carpinteria, and even Guadalupe and Tanglewood. What was misunderstood is that land management and stewardship come from our farmers and ranchers. The average age of a farmer is getting older every year. We need to provide more tools in the toolbox for the next generation of farmers to stay in farming.