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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 10th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 52

Solvang-area residents continue clashing over greenhouse project, Board of Supervisors asks for environmental review

By MALEA MARTIN

A battle between neighbors over whether one landowner should be allowed to build a greenhouse just north of Solvang rages on, despite the project being unanimously denied by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission in October 2020.

Steve Decker, who wants to build a nearly 16,000-square-foot greenhouse on his agriculturally zoned land, was initially successful in obtaining a land use permit for the development in June 2020. The project was exempted from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review at the time, as county staff classified it as a small structure. 


UNHAPPY NEIGHBORS
Just outside Solvang city limits, resident Steve Decker would like to build a greenhouse to cultivate vegetables on his property, highlighted here. But his neighbors are fighting tooth and nail to have the project halted.
SCREENSHOT FROM FEB. 9 BOARD OF SUPERVISORS VIRTUAL MEETING

Eight days later, neighbor Stephen Jacobs filed an appeal, arguing that the proposed structure wasn’t compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, which has taken on a residential use despite being zoned for agriculture. After hearing both sides of the dispute in early August, the Planning Commission ultimately voted in favor of Jacobs’ appeal on Oct. 7, effectively halting Decker’s project.

But Decker wasn’t satisfied with the commission’s vote, so he appealed it, taking the issue to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 9. He made the case that the Planning Commission erred in its application of the Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan, that his offers to add conditions on the project—such as installing blackout curtains to mitigate light pollution—were not considered, and that he was not given an impartial hearing. 

Decker and his neighbors live on agriculturally zoned land, which he believes gives him the right to build a greenhouse and grow vegetables. Decker told the Sun that the Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan “echoes everything that the county comprehensive plan says about supporting and protecting agricultural uses on agricultural lands.”

According to page 18 of the community plan, existing county policies state, “Agriculture should be preserved and protected as one of the primary economic bases of the valley.” The plan serves to augment county policies like this one in order to “provide region specific policy direction.” However, it adds, “countywide policies remain in effect.”

But Decker’s neighbors who oppose his greenhouse also lean on the community plan to support their case, specifically the requirement that structures be compatible with the existing community.

During public comment at the Feb. 9 hearing, Jacobs said that the greenhouse would “dramatically change the current makeup of the neighborhood. The size of the structure and the fact it would be the only commercial facility in and of themselves makes this project inconsistent and incompatible.”

Jacobs also voiced concern over the fact that Decker initially applied to grow cannabis in 2018, later withdrawing that application and changing the project to vegetable cultivation. Decker has repeatedly denied any present intention to grow cannabis. 

“It’s an irrational claim,” Decker told the Sun. “I’m a law-abiding citizen. I would not jeopardize my family or my capital investment in this greenhouse to being brought up on criminal charges, being brought up on land use violations. … It’s an absurd notion that that’s what I would be doing.”

Jacobs declined the Sun’s request for comment.

Travis Seawards is the deputy director of the Planning and Development Department’s Development Review Division and one of the staff members assigned to the project. He told the Sun that policies can be interpreted in different ways. 

“We originally found it to be consistent with the Santa Ynez community plan and our comprehensive plan, but then the Planning Commission made a different determination,” Seawards said. “Each time it gets appealed, it’s called a ‘de novo’ hearing, so they’re like brand new hearings. The board has its own decision-making process, so they have discretion on how they interpret the policies as it pertains to any particular project.”

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents the area in question, voiced opposition to the greenhouse at the Feb. 9 meeting. The Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan, Hartmann said, “has lots of goals. But the overarching and No. 1 listed goal was to protect the rural and scenic character of the Santa Ynez Valley for residents and visitors alike.”

The plan also aims to protect and support agricultural land use, and encourage appropriate agricultural expansion, Hartmann added.

“The term ‘appropriate’ implies discretion,” she said. “Not all agricultural expansion would be appropriate.”

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he didn’t like the proposed greenhouse at all.

However, he continued, “We can quote community plans all day, but you can’t take away somebody’s personal property right on land that’s zoned agriculture.”

Lavagnino said a root of the issue is the discrepancy between how it’s zoned versus how it’s actually used. 

“It’s not the neighbors’ fault. I totally get it,” Lavagnino said. “But that’s not what my job is to do: It’s not to say what I’d like it to be. I’ve got to look at it and say, ‘What is he legally allowed to do?’ And unfortunately, I’ve got to side with Mr. Decker on this.”

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart thought the board didn’t have enough information to evaluate this project. He suggested that county staff conduct a CEQA review to bring back to a future meeting, and Lavagnino voiced support for this idea. 

When Decker first proposed his greenhouse and got his land use permit approved, county staff exempted the project from CEQA review. But Seawards from the county Planning Department explained that this, too, can be contested.

“The decision-makers can decide that a project does not meet the requirement of exemption, and they can ask for more environmental review,” Seawards said. 

Supervisor Hart motioned to direct staff to conduct additional review—particularly in regard to the blackout curtain technology that Decker proposes to use to block out light pollution from the structure at night—and then return the item to the board. The motion passed 4-1, with 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson dissenting. 

“I’m going to vote against the motion because I do believe that we have enough evidence in the record to approve this project,” Nelson said. “I think if this was something that was not approvable, we should have never accepted the application.”

Seawards said the county will now work with Decker to see if he is willing to move forward with the CEQA review. Once the process is completed, which Seawards said could take a few months, the project will come back to the Board of Supervisors for another hearing. 

“I have no problem with this process looking at the light deprivation technology,” Decker said. “It’s new to everybody. … I’m confident we’ll be able to show that it will be effective.”

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@santamariasun.com.










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