In an effort to support the long-term financial sustainability of some large properties zoned for agricultural use and support ranchers and farmers, the county is proposing a new Agricultural Enterprise Ordinance (AEO) that could expand some of the allowed uses or activities on some ag parcels throughout our county. The intention behind expanding uses would require that new activities relate to and supplement the agricultural activities already taking place on the land. Although agriculture is our county’s top industry, with revenue in the billions and ranking among the top 10 percent of counties nationwide, water, labor shortages, and a changing climate, drought, and floods pose major challenges for those working the land.
Farmlands shape the bucolic appeal of our county. Our iconic orchards, vineyards, row crops, and rangelands help define our county’s identity. Most residents take pride in our county’s rural character. Over 80 percent of the county’s 720,000 acres in agriculture are grazing lands that provide many environmental and open space benefits for all. But grazing is especially vulnerable to long periods of drought, so I’m interested in activities that strengthen the financial viability of our farmlands.
The just-released Draft EIR proposes four different kinds of opportunities to expand allowable activities on farmland — and the public is encouraged to provide comments.
The first opportunity includes allowing commercial income from activities like farmstand fruit and veggies sales, tree nut hulling, small-scale food processing, aquaponics, composting, firewood chopping and sales, and lumber milling. Farmers could capture more value onsite from their raw materials rather than sending crops and resources away for processing.
The second opportunity deals with “farmstays” or limited guest lodging. Outside of the coastal zone, our county does not allow short-term rentals in residential or agricultural zones but does allow “homestays” when the owner or another permanent resident also lives onsite (and goes through the proper permit process). “Farmstays” would require an educational experience for guests related to the agriculture that takes place on the land — think berry picking, grape harvesting, or poultry egg-gathering activities. This gives visitors an opportunity to reconnect to the land that nourishes and sustains us.
Before the pandemic, food service was not allowed at wineries. To help wineries safely re-open under state rules during COVID, the county passed a temporary ordinance requiring food service. As such, the third opportunity under the Agricultural Enterprise Ordinance (AEO) could allow for food service at wineries to become permanent. Wineries found that visitor experiences greatly improved when food is served. Additionally, the state’s COVID rules validated that serving food alongside alcohol is a good public safety measure. This is the only opportunity that the AEO proposes for smaller AG-1 as well as for AG-2 parcels.
The fourth set of opportunities could expand uses related to commercial agricultural education and recreation. Educational opportunities envisioned include things like: technical agricultural training, bird and wildlife viewing, or wildlife photography excursions. It could also permit recreation activities like horseback riding, fishing, or hunting. Trail-based activities like bike rides, hiking, or running could also be allowed.
Additionally, at the behest of some farmers and growers, small scale camping and special events such as farm-to-table dinners, weddings, and receptions were studied in the environmental report and could be permitted through the AEO. Weddings and receptions may not pertain directly to agriculture or agricultural education and recreation — a key for all the other uses under consideration.
The Draft EIR has shown that farmstays, campgrounds, and events would have significant environmental impacts by increasing Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs), a relatively new standard by which the state assesses traffic impacts (replacing the old Level of Service standard that focused on increased congestion at intersections). A major question for the public and decision-makers is whether the benefits of these programs would outweigh the impacts to air quality, GHG emissions, traffic, and noise.
The AEO, will soon be followed by the County’s Recreation Master Plan (a public hearing is scheduled on August 30 at the Planning Commission) and later the by our Solar Ordinance. All three ordinances could expand income-producing opportunities for our farmlands. When sited and scaled appropriately, they have the potential to help keep these county lands in ag, providing additional, sustainable benefits to farmers, ranchers, and the public. The AEO will only be successful if compatible with the expectations that residents have about appropriate uses. Therefore, I encourage members of the public to weigh in on the Draft EIR of the County’s Agricultural Enterprise Ordinance.
How to Comment: Please submit your comments to the project planner, Julie Harris, by email to PADAgEnterprise@countyofsb.org prior to the close of public comment on Thursday, September 14, 2023, at 5 p.m. You may also comment by providing testimony at the virtual public hearing. Please limit comments to environmental issues such as aesthetics, biology, agricultural resources, etc.
Please join County Planning for a virtual public hearing on the Draft EIR.
Monday, August 21, 2023, at 6 p.m.
To join on your computer or mobile app, please follow the link below:
Joan Hartmann is Santa Barbara County supervisor for the 3rd District.