Gaviota Coast farms could face restrictions

Issue Date: September 18, 2013
By Christine Souza
Santa Barbara County farmer Paul Van Leer, right, whose property is affected by the county’s draft Gaviota Coast Plan, discusses avocado harvest with farm labor contractor Alfredo Melchor, left.
Photo/Robyn Moon
Many of Santa Barbara County’s top 10 commodities are produced along the Gaviota Coast, including avocados and beef cattle, shown above.
Photo/Robyn Moon

Concerned about preserving their private property rights and right to farm along Santa Barbara County's Gaviota Coast, farmers and ranchers fear a coastal planning process will place burdensome restrictions on their operations.

Santa Barbara County has been pursuing a local coastal plan that would affect about 100,000 acres along a 38-mile stretch of shoreline. The local effort grew out of a 1999 feasibility study by the federal government to turn the Gaviota Coast into a national seashore. That created so much landowner opposition that the local community and Santa Barbara County rejected modifications put forth by the California Coastal Commission.

Now, landowners and community members are working with the county planning commission to develop a draft Gaviota Coast Plan for the stretch of coastline from Goleta to Vandenberg Air Force Base, intended to guide development and land use while balancing the needs of agriculture and the public.

The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission is scheduled to meet this week to study revisions to the plan pertaining to agriculture and parks, recreation and trails, and is expected to offer its final recommendation to the county Board of Supervisors.

Farmers who have participated in the process express concern about the direction the planning effort has taken.

"This draft plan is going completely counter to what I think the whole plan was intended to do: to protect existing ranchers and farmers so they can continue to run their operations and so the area doesn't turn into an Orange County or a Malibu," Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau President Paul Van Leer said. "The county is trying to add so many regulations that they are going to stymie the ag operations from expanding or continuing to work, so they are going to get what they didn't want and eventually push us out."

Van Leer, who produces cattle and grows avocados and lemons along the Gaviota Coast, has taken an active role in the plan's development as a member of the Gaviota Coast Planning Advisory Committee—known locally as GavPAC—and chairman of its Agricultural Advisory Committee.

Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau Federation managing counsel for natural resources, said environmental regulation seems to be trumping agricultural values in the Gaviota Coast Plan.

"Agriculture and the responsible stewardship of resources by farmers and ranchers have long been a feature of the Gaviota Coast, and our members think that the evolving draft plan gives short shrift to that at the expense of misplaced environmental ambitions—including expanded public access, which itself has serious environmental impacts," Scheuring said.

The plan contains several aspects that farmers and ranchers find troublesome:

  • Imposing trails on private lands: Though the Coastal Act mandates that public trails be extended on private land for discretionary projects, county staff and trail advocates interpret this to mean cutting right through agricultural property in certain cases.
  • Rezoning private land from existing agricultural zoning to either a mountainous zone or resource management zone, which would restrict expansion of agriculture on areas of a 40 percent slope or greater.
  • Expanding Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area designation to the inland area, which currently does not have any. This is a protected area that would prohibit landowners from expansion of existing farming operations.
  • Adding a new critical "view shed" area along the Highway 101 corridor, which places conditional restrictions on building and on agricultural structures. GavPAC is calling for relaxed requirements for building, such as allowing an additional house for family members.

"We wanted to create an incentive-based plan, not a permit-process plan or draconian plan," Van Leer said. "The county has taken (the GavPAC) list of incentives and narrowed it down to: You have to get an agricultural easement, you need a parking lot for beach access and you have to give up a trail section. In other words, for you to get an additional house, you would have to give up a trail to your property."

One of the most important incentives for farmers obtained through the draft planning process, Van Leer said, is to exempt some additional farm activities—on a small scale—where farmers would not be required to obtain a permit. This exemption, which farmers hope will be honored countywide, would be for activities such as pressing olives or operating a farm stand.

Gaviota rancher Leslie Freeman has a ranch that lies in both the coastal zone and inland areas affected by the draft plan. He said he fears county staff will ignore input by community members of GavPAC.

"I think this process is going to add more rules and regulations because of what staff has done," Freeman said. "The GavPAC put in a lot of hours and are not going to end up getting what they really came up with, when this is said and done."

Freeman said he also believes restrictions contained in the draft plan covering the coastal zone will eventually be placed on landowners in the inland part of the region.

"It is a tough situation. No matter what comes of this, there are going to be more restrictions, I'm afraid, in the inland zone. I don't see anything good coming out of this," Freeman said.

If the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approves the document, an environmental impact report would be developed and released for public review. That report and a final draft would be reviewed by the planning commission and forwarded to the Coastal Commission for its approval.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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