The Board of Supervisors gave its support to an ordinance to help prevent the nuisance caused by eye gnat breeding at organic farms.
The 4-0 vote Oct. 31, with Bill Horn recusing himself from the vote and discussion since he owns an organic farm, approves the introduction and first reading of the ordinance. The second reading and adoption is scheduled for Dec. 5, and if that is approved the ordinance would take effect Jan. 4.
“I think the ordinance we have before us today is an excellent ordinance,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
“One of our charges here is to protect the public,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. “We have a lot of people who cannot use their own property.”
Eye gnats are approximately 1/16 of an inch long and feed on protein from body fluids including the eyes, noses, and mouths of humans and animals. They are native to San Diego County and breed in organically-rich soil.
“Eye gnats are a nuisance for which we have no existing authority to address,” said Jack Miller, the director of the county’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH).
Approximately 350 organic farms have commercial operations in San Diego County, although complaints of eye gnats have centered on Bornt Farms in Jacumba and Be Wise Ranch in the San Pasqual Valley. In November 2011, the Board of Supervisors directed county staff to develop an approach to address the eye gnat problem. A working group consisting of San Diego County Farm Bureau leaders, organic farmers, community members, a technical expert, and county staff from DEH and the Farm and Home Advisor met five times to help craft a program and draft ordinance and to contribute to a report on eye gnat intervention options. The draft program and ordinance underwent a public comment period which included two community meetings.
On March 28, the county supervisors voted 4-0 to receive the report on intervention options and directed county staff to complete the California Environmental Quality Act process and return with an implementing ordinance. The environmental Negative Declaration resulted in modifications to the initial proposal, including removal of forced pesticide use, while receiving 1,027 comments from public agencies or members of the public. County Counsel determined removing forced pesticide use did not require recirculation of the Negative Declaration.
The ordinance gives DEH authority over eye gnats as vectors, makes eye gnat intervention eligible for Vector Control Program funding, and creates an Eye Gnat Abatement Appeals Board. Abatement will be implemented in response to complaints with priority for voluntary abatement measures and inspections to verify compliance. Regulatory orders will be issued as necessary. The “last resort situation” if the nuisance persists despite maximum effort or failure to participate in a voluntary plan or comply with an abatement order will allow the county to restrict the types of crops grown and abatement measures may be issued without regard to grower costs.
The county will be involved in abatement action only after public nuisance complaints are investigated and DEH finds that a source, alone or in combination with other sources, was the predominant cause of the nuisance. DEH cannot base a conclusion solely on community complaints; direct observations by staff and consideration of collected data are also required.
“The ordinance cannot be triggered by a single complaint,” said Rebecca Lafreniere, the chief of the Vector Control Program. “Staff has to verify the validity of those complaints.”
Under the voluntary abatement portion, commercial organic farmers can work with the Farm and Home Advisor to develop and implement a voluntary plan. If a voluntary plan fails to protect the community, DEH may order mandatory specific abatement measures. In the absence of a “last resort situation,” DEH may not order a grower to cease organic operations or cease growing particular crops, and initial orders would be limited to those which would be economically feasible for the farmer.
The abatement measures, whether voluntary or mandatory, could include trapping eye gnats, installing barrier fences, and preventing fresh vegetation from being turned into the soil.
The Eye Gnat Abatement Appeals Board would allow for appeals of any mandatory abatement orders. The First Supervisorial District would appoint a licensed pest control advisor, District 2 and District 3 would each appoint a community at large member, and District 4 and District 5 would appoint an owner or operator of an organic farm.
“The ordinance before you is the very essence of fair balance,” said Robert Morriss of San Pasqual Valley.
“We knew you had to find a solution,” said San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director Eric Larson.
Larson noted that the two farms which had caused the complaints weren’t necessarily negligent but that the majority of organic farms in the county produce tree crops and most of the rest are in less populated areas. “Some organic farmers are just struggling with the location,” he said.
Bonsall organic avocado farmer Rick Carey was concerned about the lack of some specifics. “It’s too open-ended from a grower’s standpoint,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to proceed if I had to mitigate the problem.”
Bornt Farms had been leasing the Jacumba property and vacated the site at the end of June 2012. The property owner allowed conventional pesticide application, which occurred July 12, and no complaints have been received since July 16.
“We are a very happy community,” said Danielle Cook of Jacumba.
“The kids at school will be able to eat lunch outside and not be affected,” Jacob said.
In July 2012, Be Wise Ranch implemented a voluntary prevention plan which included offering free traps to neighboring residents. Data has shown a reduction in complaints from prior years of 85 percent to 95 percent. “I’m quite proud to have been able to achieve what we have,” said Bill Brammer, who operates Be Wise Ranch.
On Be Wise Ranch itself Brammer and his staff placed 2,000 traps and installed 13,000 feet of three-foot-tall silt barrier. The nearby Vineyard golf course saw a 98 percent reduction from its 2010 trap collections.
“What we have here is a good approach,” Slater-Price said.
The Board of Supervisors previously created a fly abatement ordinance with an appeals board to address the problems of flies which proliferated due to agricultural livestock manure. “The fly abatement ordinance has been pretty successful. It’s worked pretty well,” Jacob said.
The county supervisors noted that the eye gnat ordinance could be refined if issues regarding implementation occur.