County Planning Commission halts reservoir project in Cuyama

More than 20 public speakers recently urged the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission to deny a property owner’s proposal to build three new water reservoirs in New Cuyama.

Despite county staff’s recommendation to approve the project, Planning Commissioner C. Michael Cooney said he sided with participants of public comment during the commission’s March 29 hearing, who unanimously opposed the construction of three frost ponds to store water for a sprinkler-based frost protection system at North Fork Ranch Vineyards.

click to enlarge County Planning Commission halts reservoir project in Cuyama
CUYAMA DRAMA : A property owner’s proposal to build three new reservoirs in New Cuyama faced unanimous opposition from local and nonlocal public speakers during the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission’s latest hearing.

“I do listen to those who are directly impacted by the proposal,” Cooney said after public comment ended. “Armed with that testimony fresh in my mind … I can’t support the project as it now stands.”

“There are tweaks that can be made, but I have severe doubt that I would ever find the ponds that have been proposed as the source of water for the frost control to be acceptable in a way that doesn’t affect the remainder of the neighborhood negatively,” Cooney added.

While staff found the project to be consistent with county policies, some local farmers and landowners argued during public comment that the applicant, Brodiaea Inc., should have considered alternative frost protection methods to eliminate the need for new reservoirs.

A handful of nonlocal speakers during public comment identified themselves as current students, alumni, or staff members at Harvard University, and claimed that Brodiaea Inc. is one of the shell companies that the college uses to invest in farmland.

Kelsey Ichikawa, an alumna of Harvard University and current researcher at the school, said that there are “deep contradictions” between “Harvard’s goal of being at the leading edge of sustainability” while “seeking to consolidate its financial investments in groundwater-rich land and other natural resources in ways that threaten the rights and livelihoods of local residents and farmers.”

“I’m asking you to push back against this external investor who, let’s be honest, is not accountable to your constituents and is not accountable to the public good,” Ichikawa said during public comment.

Hannah Weinronk, a staff member at Harvard University, claimed that Brodiaea was created by the college to disassociate some farmland and vineyard investments with “the Harvard name.”

“If Santa Barbara County ever wanted to hold Harvard accountable for their actions with the vineyards in the future, it will be extremely difficult to do so,” Weinronk said.

Planning Commissioner Laura M. Bridley later asked staff if there’s anyway to prove whether Harvard University is the owner of Brodiaea.

“There is nothing in the case file that names Harvard. Brodiaea Inc. is the applicant,” county contract planner Steve Rodriguez said. “I’d probably been working on the project for months until somebody informed me of that connection.”

The Brodiaea project will be revisited, with new findings for denial from staff, at the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission’s May 10 meeting.

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