The County of San Diego’s most recent initiative to promote agriculture in the unincorporated county by streamlining regulations for small operations won’t go into effect for at least a couple of years.
The county’s Planning Commission recommended development of a program on March 7, although the San Diego County Board of Supervisors will make the final decisions on those actions to develop the program.
The actual development of the program, including the composition of necessary Zoning Ordinance amendments and other county code changes (with community input) and the completion of an Environmental Impact Report, is expected to take between 24 and 30 months. The actual ordinance will then return to the Planning Commission for a recommendation before the Board of Supervisors takes the final action to adopt the program.
The Planning Commission’s 4-0 vote, with Adam Day and David Pallinger absent and one vacancy, was thus only a step in the creation of the program albeit an important step. “We really appreciate the county moving forward with this,” said San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director Eric Larson.
The recommendations for the Board of Supervisors were to find that the development of the program (although not the ordinance itself) is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review, to direct the county’s chief administrative officer to develop the program and return to the board within 30 months, to appropriate $525,000 of Fiscal Year 2014-15 general fund revenue to fund the development of the program, and to amend the tiered winery ordinance to add land with S92 General Rural zoning to properties eligible for on-site wine sales and tasting rooms.
Several potential changes will be analyzed in addition to adding S92 land to the tiered winery ordinance. Microbreweries are currently limited to areas with commercial or industrial zoning; the hope is to allow them in agricultural-zoned areas with existing operations growing some ingredients on-site.
Cheesemaking and dairy operations are currently limited to industrial areas or on-site use in agricultural areas; the county will explore expanded uses on agriculturally-zoned land. The existing beekeeping statutes limit bee uses including setbacks; additional allowances for bees and bee-related uses such as honey production will be considered.
Cooking, canning, tanning, rendering, or reducing operations which are related to on-site food production are currently limited to industrial areas as a general industrial use but may in the future be allowed with limits in agricultural areas in conjunction with existing agricultural operations.
Packing and processing for market use is now limited to specific uses with on-site produce and limited to specific zones, in some cases only with a discretionary permit, and the study may allow that in more zones in conjunction with agricultural uses while amending the permit requirements in existing zones to allow more uses.
Horticultural sales accessory to agricultural nursery uses are now only allowed with a minor use permit but after the analysis may be allowed without a discretionary permit. The existing animal number limits for animal raising will be analyzed and updated if warranted.
Roadside sales of agricultural products, currently limited to agricultural zones, could be allowed in commercial zones and updated to state code. Agricultural tourism, farm-to-table, and educational agricultural activities are currently limited to specific zones with no temporary events allowed; the changes could allow those in more zones and allow some temporary events.
A bed and breakfast, host home, or agricultural homestay is currently limited to specific zones and structures and allowed only with a discretionary permit; the county might add more zones and change permit requirements along with other regulation amendments.
“Agriculture is an important industry,” said Carl Stiehl, the project manager for the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services. “The agriculture promotion program is intended to expand opportunities for agricultural operation.”
In June 2013, the county supervisors directed the county’s chief administrative officer to identify ways to streamline regulations and provide more opportunity for agricultural venues such as microbreweries and cheesemaking and, in October 2013, the supervisors directed county staff to work with stakeholders on changes which would protect and promote beekeeping operations in the unincorporated county. “It’s important to have an active and flexible approach to update regulations periodically,” Stiehl said.
The program will likely utilize a tiered ordinance as has been the case with two previous county initiatives. In August 2010, the county supervisors approved a four-tiered winery ordinance which bases the type of permit on production volume. In September 2013, the supervisors approved a tiered equine ordinance basing the approval process on the number of horses and the available acreage.
Unincorporated San Diego County had one winery tasting room prior to the adoption of the tiered winery ordinance and now has more than 20. “It is really turning out to be an exciting thing,” said Planning Commissioner Peder Norby.
Norby noted that the availability of local tasting rooms not only helps local vineyards but also reduces travel for the general public. “We do not have to go to Temecula or Paso (Robles),” Norby said. “We’re very excited to see the success of that.”
Dave Harbour, who owns 20 acres and a you-pick farm in southern Ramona, hopes to add craft distilling to the options. “It’s an offering that I’d like to offer at my farm,” he said. “Currently there’s no administrative process that allows it.”
Harbour noted that he is currently allowed to distill fuel and brandy but not other types of spirits. “I have the ability to grow most of the items I need to do it,” he said.
The tiered winery ordinance currently only applies to properties with A70 Limited Agriculture or A72 General Agriculture zoning and not to properties with S92 zoning. Approximately 27 percent of land under the county’s jurisdiction has S92 zoning. “That would expand the footprint down south,” Planning Commissioner Bryan Woods said of making S92 land eligible for the tiered winery ordinance.
An S92 zone is a residential and agricultural zone which is intended to provide appropriate controls for land constrained by rugged terrain, desert, watersheds, fire or erosion risk, dependency on groundwater for a water supply, or other environmental constraints. “The areas out in the far backcountry are heavily groundwater-dependent,” said Planning Commissioner Michael Beck. “I’m wondering if the analysis is going to be able to identify some sustainability thresholds in respect to groundwater.”
Norby expects the groundwater analysis to address each community. “We know that we have some areas that are really tight on water,” he said. “Some are flush and some are really tight, and we want the analysis to include that.”
Beck notes that different crops utilize various amounts of water. “It seems like it’s going to be interesting to get down to different types of crops,” he said. “It will be pretty interesting to see how that’s reconciled.”
The environmental impact reports for both the tiered winery ordinance and the tiered equine ordinance assumed a “worst-case scenario.” For the winery ordinance every possible property would have on-site sales and a tasting room and for the equine ordinance every parcel would utilize the maximum number of horses. In both cases the Board of Supervisors adopted a statement of overriding considerations when certifying the EIR. The agricultural promotion program EIR may also make worst-case assumptions which would equate to impacts beyond what could reasonably be expected.
The Planning Commission opted not to include properties with rural residential zoning in the analysis. “I’m happy that they passed it but very disappointed that they weren’t willing to look at the rural residential,” Larson said.
Larson noted that he was only asking for a review of including the rural residential areas. “These are decisions just to study it and look at it,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed about their decision on the rural residential. They aren’t even going to consider it.”
Family residential uses and crop growing are permitted by right in rural residential zones. Group residential uses, limited packing and processing, and other uses are allowed if a use permit is issued.
“We have a lot of farms in San Diego County that operate under rural residential,” Larson said. “We think there might be an opportunity for some minor tweaking, some expansion.”