Monday, November 20, 2017     Volume: 18, Issue: 37
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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 19 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 19

Santa Barbara County still struggling with how to exempt temporary hoop houses from required permits

By CAMILLIA LANHAM

Those plastic-covered tubular structures in which raspberries, blackberries, and squash love to grow are part of the landscape along Highway 101 in Northern Santa Barbara County. But technically speaking, they’re not exactly legal.

Since February 2016, the county’s been trying to change that, but the Board of Supervisors’ recent attempt to speed up the process hit a snag at the end of June, when the lawyer who threatened to appeal that decision made good on his word. On June 26, Ana Citrin from the Law Office of Marc Chytilo hand-delivered an appeal of the board’s June 6 decision directing Planning and Land-Use Director Glenn Russell to issue a director’s determination exempting those structures from zoning permits.

Citrin filed the appeal with the county on behalf of the Committees for Land, Air, Water, and Species (CLAWS), stating in it that the director’s determination “improperly circumvented the California Environmental Quality Act” (CEQA), echoing statements she made during public comment at the board’s June 6 hearing.

“Whatever option your board chooses, it’s critical that it gets adequate environmental review,” she said during the June 6 meeting, adding that hoop structures do “damage to scenic resources along our state designated scenic highways” and it would be a “mistake to shortcut the public process.”

But of the five options presented to them, the board voted 3-2 with 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf and 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann dissenting, to go with the quickest one. They directed Russell to define hoop structures 20 feet high or shorter as “farm equipment” (temporary in nature) in a director’s determination, as a way to clarify how the houses are already defined in the county’s zoning codes, which essentially considers them to be greenhouses (a permanent structure).

Santa Barbara County farmers John DeFriel and Wilja Happe spoke in favor of the director’s determination option during the June 6 hearing. Each said the increased regulatory burden of having to approach the county for a permit every time farmers wanted to move their hoop houses would be too much. DeFriel said he’d have to ask for a new permit every six months for his 500 acres of hoop houses.

“This is no different than tractors when it comes to farming,” he said, adding that hoop houses increase yields, remove the randomness of an ever-changing climate, and extend growing seasons.

“It’s a bent piece of metal with a piece of plastic over it to create a mini environment for the crop until it is ready,” Happe said. “Hoop houses are agricultural tools.”

Supervisor Das Williams, 1st District, said it would be ironic to get a CEQA challenge based on views when hoop houses allow for higher production and less pesticide and water use.

“It’s substantially improving something much more basic: whether we’re poisoning ourselves in our food,” Williams said. “That would just be a painful irony that visual aesthetics trumps what I would call real solid environmental interest.”

But the appeal Citrin filed mentions more than viewsheds. It argues that the director’s determination was used improperly and is inconsistent with the county’s current zoning code. Planning Director Russell concedes that point.

“We didn’t think that was necessarily a good idea, because what it does is it leaves a bunch of conflicting terms and definitions in our zoning code,” Russell told the Sun. “This was a very unusual use of the director’s determination.”

He said that normally, director’s determinations are used to clarify definitions within the zoning code rather than re-define something. The other options before the board, though, all involved changing the zoning ordinance to exempt hoop houses less than 20 feet high from having to go through the permitting process.

“Changing the zoning ordinance is a much more involved process, and it takes a longer period of time,” Russell said. “This process that the board thought would in fact shorten the time it took to resolve the hoop houses issue is actually going to cause significant delay because we won’t be done with this appeals process until late 2017. It’s unfortunate because I would have liked to resolve this issue much more quickly, but that’s not the case.”

This issue didn’t become a problem until Windset Farms went to county planners with a conundrum: They wanted to put up hoop structures on county land, and they wanted the process to be exempt from permitting.

“That was the first I’d heard of hoop structures, I mean I’d seen them, but I hadn’t really thought about it,” Russell said. “Hoop houses are out there all over the place. I wasn’t paying attention to them and neither was anyone else. They’re just part of the landscape in North County.”

He went through the county’s building and zoning ordinances and realized that hoop houses, which are temporary and have no foundation or footing, had to be permitted as greenhouses, which have a foundation and are permanent.

“That’s kind of an onerous process for a temporary structure,” Russell said. “People believe they should be exempt, and I believe they should be, too. We’ve been trying to do that.”

In 2016, the Board of Supervisors voted to change the county’s building code to exempt hoop houses less than 20 feet tall from requiring a building permit. The same needs to be done for the county’s zoning code—and that is at least a six-month to yearlong process. Plus, Russell said that process could also be subject to an environmental review, which the appeal filed on June 26 argues for due to “visual impacts,” “drainage and erosion,” and “large amounts of plastic waste.”

But, the county’s planning department won’t be able to determine whether that environmental review has to happen until it really sits down to look at the issue. And it can’t do that until after the appeals process is completed, which will start in front of the county Planning Commission in early August.

Contact Executive Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.




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