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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 22nd, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 12

Cities push back on proposed changes that would make it difficult to annex farmland

By ZAC EZZONE

Cities in Santa Barbara County could have a harder time annexing farmland to grow their boundaries if the Santa Barbara Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) implements a few proposed policy changes. One of the changes would require the development of prime agricultural land to be mitigated with an equal amount of land preserved.

The city of Lompoc hasn’t annexed land and expanded its boundary since 1999, which has stifled the number of new homes built in the city. Although the city is working on annexing two parcels of land on its west side, its ability to do so would be affected by these changes. Aside from Lompoc’s 2019-21 biennial budget, this inability to grow is City Manager Jim Throop’s biggest concern.


LIMITING EXPANSION
Proposed countywide changes would make it more difficult for Lompoc to annex farmland and expand the city’s boundary.
FILE PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

“This is what I would consider one of the top priorities, if not the top priority—pushing the budget aside—for the city because so much of what we need to do and want to do hinges on our ability to expand our boundaries,” Throop said.

In California, local jurisdictions that want to annex land and expand their boundaries must go through a process with their county’s LAFCO. The Santa Barbara LAFCO is proposing to change these policies to encourage conservation of open-space areas and agricultural land.

Of the proposed changes, Throop said the most significant is the measure requiring the development of prime agricultural land to be mitigated because it would be costly to the landowner. For example, if the owner of a 10-acre farm wants their property to be annexed into a city, the landowner must preserve 10 acres of land elsewhere through various means.

To mitigate, an applicant could purchase a parcel of land for preservation, or an applicant could pay in-lieu fees to fully fund the acquisition and dedication of land, according to the Santa Barbara LAFCO. Throop noted that the proposed policy also leaves a vague option open for the applicant and annexing city to agree to other mitigation options.

The cost of this mitigation could deter some landowners from choosing to be annexed into a city, Throop said. According to a map of county farmlands created by the California Department of Conservation, much of Lompoc is surrounded by prime agricultural land, which would make mitigation necessary in most annexation scenarios.

Additionally, with the exception of a few vacant lots, most of the city is built out, which leaves annexation as the city’s only option for opening up space for housing and businesses.

As the number of rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base has increased, businesses have expressed interest in opening facilities in the city to store and maintain rockets, but the city doesn’t have the space available.

“Without being able to push out, we cannot pull in those types of businesses that would be a huge benefit to this community because those are the types of jobs—they aren’t retail, they aren’t $12 an hour—they would be much, much better paying,” Throop said.

The city of Santa Maria is in a similar situation, minus the rockets.

Most of the city north of Betteravia Road is surrounded by prime agricultural land, and there are few vacant lots remaining in the city. This leaves little room for the additional 30,000 residents the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments estimates will move to the city over the next 20 years.

Santa Maria is preparing to embark on a three-year study to update its general plan, which will look at different options to accommodate this projected growth. But before seeing the data, aerial photos of the city show there isn’t much room left, Community Development Director Chuen Ng said.

“There’s a thought that future housing could be within the city’s existing corridors, and there may be a combination of infill and expansion,” Ng said. “I’m skeptical that the existing areas could accommodate 30,000 persons or 10,000 housing units.”

While Santa Maria and Lompoc officials have expressed concern over these changes, LAFCO Executive Officer Paul Hood said the policies are consistent with similar ones used by commissions in neighboring San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.

The commission requested LAFCO staff review its policies on agricultural land and open spaces after receiving a letter from the Environmental Defense Center in April 2018 and after reviewing a report from the California Association of LAFCOs in May 2018.

During a subsequent meeting in October 2018, LAFCO staff recommended that the commission examine its existing policies and consider revisions. The October meeting’s staff report cites Lompoc’s attempt to annex two parcels of land totaling almost 150 acres near Bailey Avenue as the reason this consideration is necessary.

“In light of a current proposal involving the … annexation of prime agricultural lands west of the city of Lompoc, it is timely for the commission to review and pontifically revise its agricultural and open-space policies,” the staff report states.

In late March 2019, LAFCO sent a letter to all cities within the county and to the county itself requesting comments on the proposed changes by May 15. Lompoc and Santa Maria replied with letters that raised objections to all of the potential changes.

Hood said he will present the feedback to LAFCO at the commission’s June 6 meeting in Santa Maria. There is no set date for when the commission will vote on the proposed changes.

Over the last two decades, Throop said that Lompoc has found it difficult to work with LAFCO to annex land. If these changes are approved, it could make this process even more arduous, he said.

“We’re down here just trying to make ends meet, and by not being able to expand and grow, it’s going to be extremely hard for the city to pull itself out of the situation it’s in,” Throop said.

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at zezzone@santamariasun.com.




Weekly Poll
Should the proposed aquifer exemption in Cat Canyon be approved?

Yes—the water from the proposed area can't serve as drinking water.
No—oil containments could still pollute usable groundwater.
Additional oil and gas projects can create more jobs.
We need to move away from oil and gas and look at renewable energy projects.

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