This land is ag land

Originally printed in the Winters Express

By JULIA MILLON

Staff Writer

 

“I grew up in a county where we’ve ruined it all, and I’m referring to Orange County, and this is how it started, a little bit here and a little bit there; pretty soon the farmers can’t operate.

“It’s sickening to see what’s happened in those counties down there, once you start wiping it out, it’s gone forever.”

Supervisor Duane Chamberlain made these comments to a small audience at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

The board had the foresight to pull out a few sections of the zoning code for a more scrutinized level of review, including a clause on agri-tourism dealing with bed and breakfasts and event centers.

Although there were no representatives from the hospitality industry, a handful of Western Yolo residents and farmers asked the board to place a moratorium on the development of bed and breakfasts and event centers in rural areas.

The current zoning ordinance allows the operation of these facilities on land zoned for agriculture.

Bruce Rominger, a farmer in the area, who argued the proposed code allows for “leapfrog development,” spearheaded the request.

Rominger’s concern about a sprawl of development threatening agriculture was echoed by all of the public comments, and the board decided to consider the moratorium, bringing the issue back during the meeting of Tuesday, March 8.

News of the moratorium request spread rapidly throughout the county, provoking a call to action from the hospitality industry at the Winters city council meeting of Tuesday, March 1.

The operators of Park Winters as well as a newer development, Field and Pond, which is building under a conditional use permit while its application is under review, both responded to the moratorium by appealing the public to view the request as a limit to equality.

“These people want to stop the American Dream,” said Rafael Galliano of Park Winters, “We should all have the opportunity to live in harmony with each other.”

“We’ve been labeled as masquerading as farmers,” said Dahvie James of Field and Pond, responding to comments made at the supervisors meeting. He said Field and Pond contains, “a good amount of agriculture.”

“You can come and see, there’s plants in the ground,” said James.

Many area farmers would argue the level of agriculture at the Field and Pond project is not sufficient to allow the placement of a bed and breakfast or event center on that property, zoned as ag-extensive, although it is in compliance with the current ordinances.

Galliano and John Martin hosted a discussion on the moratorium at their Park Winters ahead of supervisors meeting.

This diverse gathering convened during a break from stormy weather on Sunday, March 6. The meeting was well attended by residents and farmers of the rural area outside of Winters. Without three-minute limits, and the ability to respond to comments, the direct dialogue illuminated some deeper issues concerning the future of open land.

“If someone wins and someone loses, we all lose,” said Galliano, “We have to live in harmony and understand each other.”

He said that anyone, regardless of their background or the financial sense of their operation should be allowed to farm the land, without fear of discrimination.

“The moratorium is one of the darkest things that’s happening in the county,” said Galliano.

The strong response from Park Winters to the moratorium proposal was largely due in part to Bruce Rominger’s statement that a rural restaurant operating near Winters was drawing business away from the city.

This suggestion, which Galliano believes to be directed at Park Winters as no other establishment fits the description, was unfounded according to Galliano who surveyed business owners. Councilman Wade Cowan, who is heavily involved with the Winters Chamber of Commerce, agreed there was no evidence of this.

Bruce Rominger, who spoke briefly before leaving to give a tour on his farm, said that he has no issue with anyone farming the land, and actively supports the education of young farmers new to agriculture.

“The opportunity for direct marketing on a small scale…this is the best thing that’s happened to California,” he said.

Rominger’s issue was with properties where ag was not the focus industry.

Phillip Watts, the owner of Field and Pond, called into question the method of pushing the moratorium forward.

“It’s important that we’re not too exclusive…I think [the moratorium] is wrong, and I think people abused their power.”

Tom Barth, lawyer and resident of rural Western Yolo also supported the idea that the moratorium was only taken seriously by the board of supervisors because of the prominence of the Rominger family, and that Supervisor Don Saylor, who supported considering the moratorium had “back door motivations” because members of the Rominger family contributed to his campaign for assembly. These contributions total 1 percent of Saylor’s budget.

Rather than address these allegations, Patty Rominger spelled out some of the apprehension that drives the moratorium, found in the shortcomings of other counties.

While she viewed Napa and Sonoma counties as cautionary tales of the hospitality industry interfering with ag production, she highlighted other counties such as Placer and El Dorado as positive models of restrictive zoning codes empowering farmers and ranchers to continue production, still allowing for agri-tourism as a secondary venture.

Placer County requires that a property in an ag zone generate enough income from ag production on that land to cover the costs of the production before any other uses may be considered. Eldorado County requires that a certain percentage of land be farmed for any other developments to be considered.

“If you want to have ag tourism, first you have to be ag, not the other way around,” she said

Many of the comments at the meeting spoke to the process of introducing the moratorium, rather than specific solutions for the underlying rift. A contingent of neighbors to both Park Winters and Field and Pond urged all parties to work together with each other instead of involving the county.

“You people can do this without making it a neighborhood war. The opposition to Field and Pond has been really really strong. I read that as anger. What is it you’re afraid of?” said Bill Pfanner, former Winters city councilman.

The Board of Supervisors meeting of Tuesday, March 8 showed no compromises.

Continuing to question the character of the group requesting the moratorium, Barth opened public comment by saying area famers abused the system by harassing Field and Pond with unfounded calls to the sheriff, as well as trespassing on to the property.

Ultimately, Barth argued that the lack of “a current and immediate threat to public health, safety, and welfare” meant there were no grounds for a moratorium.

According to county code, these things must be established for a moratorium to be placed.

A few other comments spoke to this point, arguing the state of the roads made Western Yolo unfit for increased traffic, as well access for fire vehicles.

Ed Beoshanz, chair commissioner of the West Plainfield Fire District, stated that road 29, the location of Field and Pond does not currently meet the fire code as a suitable road to access fires in that area.

Joe Rominger also believed the current allowances for hospitality industry establishments to be an immediate threat, not to safety but to the welfare of farming.

“I called my Canner, asked if I could stop harvest from Friday through Sunday. I was cut off in mid-sentence,” he said.

“You are part of our strict 24-hours-a-day delivery schedule from July 1st to mid-October. If you can’t deliver you tomatoes when you’re supposed to deliver your tomatoes, then I’ll look at your contract at the end of the year. And if you think we’re upset, call you trucker, they’re just about done with you guys out there,” said the Canner, according to Rominger.

“That scared me to death,” he said.

Many wine grape growers and vintners from the Clarksburg area spoke before the board to oppose the moratorium.

Although the board stated that the moratorium would not affect pending applications or the Clarksburg area, which has different regulations on account of the higher level of agri-tourism from the wine industry, many felt it was a threat to an allowance that resulted in their prosperity.

“The moratorium is an ill-conceived method,” said winery owner Steve Herringer.

He said his operation relies on “new methods to keep our operation successful for future generations.”

Of 34 public comments, 22 speakers supported a moratorium, 11 opposed a moratorium, and one speaker expressed that he had no official stance. The majority of the opposition came from Clarksburg farmers, speaking to their successes as adirect result of expanded agri-tourism.

Although board chair Jim Provenza requested that everyone present steer clear of making comments directly concerning the Field and Pond project, from Barth’s comments opening the hearing to Beoshanz’ last word on the safety issues of Road 29, it was clear that that specific establishment ignited concerns on both sides of the issue.

While the planning commission is ultimately tasked with evaluating the location of the project, many believed that Field and Pond should not have been able to begin development at all.

“Yolo county has the opportunity to be more proactive, rather than reactive, and I hope that’s the case,” said Patty Rominger.

Farmland in California has shrunk 32 percent from 37,500,000 acres in 1950 to 25,500,000 acres in 2014, according to annual reports from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Some of this decline may be due to advances in efficient land use, but is due largely in part to development of agricultural land.

This effect of the state’s perpetually increasing population density requires government intervention to preserve the land from further development, since development for commercial or residential uses causes the dollar value of the land to increase past economic feasibility for farming. The Williamson Act, introduced in 1965, protects a majority of Yolo County open land.

The following is an excerpt from the Yolo County Williamson Act guidelines:

“A compatible use must be secondary to the primary use of the land for commercial agricultural purposes. A use is considered secondary when it is required for, or is part of, the agricultural use. A use is incompatible if it increases the temporary or permanent human population on the subject property and that increased population could hinder or impair agricultural operations on the subject property and/or other agricultural lands in the vicinity.”

These regulations are needed because without them, farmers would eventually be priced out of their land. The cost of land is artificial; the purchasing power of consumers drives which industries are able to pay for resources. There is a long history of government intervention of behalf of agriculture because consumers, especially in California, are paying more than ever for their shelter, and less than ever, adjusting for inflation, for their food.

Consumers who are able to comfortably purchase both are free to use the power of their remaining dollars for anything else, vacations included. If some tourism in the county took advantage of this to raise awareness to the source of the state’s necessary sustenance, more consumer dollars might go toward investing in agriculture.

The board’s unanimous decision on March 8 was to move forward without a moratorium, and hold workshops for stakeholders to help shape the future of the county. Faced with the risk of impinging on the freedoms of its people, our local government chose the inclusive route, deciding not to marginalize the hospitality industry in favor for a more inclusive discussion.

According to the staff report on the moratorium 16 applications have been submitted to the county since 2010, although nothing is currently stopping the amount of applications from growing exponentially.

Even in the midst of a low proposed development load, the people of rural Yolo County are looking for clearer answers to the future of the land. No voice in this debate would like to see agriculture, adorning the top of the county’s seal, go the way of the grizzly bear on the state flag, or the oranges covering the seal of Orange County, a reminder of an obsolete resource.

Without places to showcase the county, the vast majority of people consuming the staples, produce, and livestock grown and raised in Yolo may never notice when all of their food starts to come from somewhere else. However, if too many of the places that provide this opportunity impact an infrastructure unprepared to support the high traffic of tourism, this effort to save agriculture would ultimately hurt the industry it was trying to preserve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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