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Point of View: Urban farm tiff has quite a plot

Roman S. Koenig

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2013_COLUMN_KOENIG_REncinitas’ long, rich history of agriculture has lost out to crops of so-called “McMansions” over the years, but patches of that past tradition continue to hold ground in the city’s urbanized environment. A new movement in urban agriculture stands to revitalize that tradition.

Standing in the way of Encinitas’ agricultural past, present and future is a new crop of residents engaged in a form of reverse NIMBYism — people who move into the area now, see the agriculture already there among the new neighborhoods, and in turn seek to have it oppressed.

NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) is generally considered a negative term for residents who oppose changes to their neighborhood, usually having to do with new development. Now we’re seeing the tables turned on that concept, where newer residents move into an area and demand changes to already established properties or operations.

Regardless of the complainers’ intent, legitimate or not, agriculture’s place in today’s Encinitas is a quandary worthy of a solution, and soon.

The brewing battle’s current front is Coral Tree Farm, a fixture in the community long before the homes now surrounding it were built. Apparently, this family farm’s community outreach — in the form of entrepreneurship and education — is somehow a threat to Encinitas’ new urban homesteaders.

Encinitas city ordinances do not appear to be on agriculture’s side, perhaps more out of neglect than intent.

“We are all in the position of working with what has been written back in 1986,” Coral Tree Farm owner Laurel Mehl told the North Coast Current in May.

“After a neighbor filed a complaint about traffic and cars legally parked on the public street, the Encinitas city planning department is taking the position that Coral Tree Farm may have lost the ability to farm through a re-evaluation of whether her land is and was continuously involved in ‘agriculture,’” states a letter from attorney Catherine Blakespear to the city. “The facts clearly support the conclusion that Ms. Mehl has not lost her grandfathered right to farm.”

Encinitas voters approved incorporation as a city in 1986 largely as a movement to preserve such aspects of the community’s character against county-driven urbanization. The irony the city faces now is that the very effort to control local growth and preserve industry and heritage could well lead to its demise. Some in Encinitas have argued this for nearly two decades already as property after property has fallen to development.

Two recent examples: Large stands of greenhouses behind Weidner’s Gardens and at the intersection of Santa Fe Avenue and Lake Drive have been mowed down and replaced with what many refer to as “McMansions,” overly large homes built on postage-stamp lots.

“The city currently de-incentivizes (agricultural) businesses and organizations by having a limiting and narrow view of acceptable land uses on (agricultural) zoned property and a cumbersome, expensive permit process, both of which can powerfully impact a small farmer to the point of inability to survive in Encinitas,” Mim Michelove, co-founder of Healthy Day Partners, said in the North Coast Current’s story.

City officials have remained somewhat quiet about this void threatening the community’s agricultural tradition, perhaps reserving judgment regarding an issue they didn’t anticipate. To the credit of Councilwoman Teresa Barth and community activists, there is a push to codify the definition and permitting process of community gardens. The clarification of such gardens’ status is only part of the solution, however.

Blakespear’s letter, sent to Encinitas City Council members and the North Coast Current, among other media outlets, indicates that the city has actually been hostile to Coral Tree Farm.

At issue is whether Coral Tree Farm conforms to city land-use codes.

The letter takes the city to task regarding its claim that Coral Tree Farm’s agricultural practices constitute a “nonconforming use” of the property. The letter notes the family’s decades-long history on the land, as well as its long-recognized agricultural water rates by the San Dieguito Water District.

“Importantly, there is no actual definition of agriculture in the city of Encinitas’ code,” the letter states. That’s a stunning and disappointing problem for a city that incorporated in 1986 in the spirit of preserving it. The former “Flower Capital of the World” has no definition of what constitutes agriculture?

“Without question, Coral Tree Farm is currently performing ‘agriculture’, has performed agriculture for the last 56 years, and has not lost the right to perform agriculture through any 180 days lapses in agricultural activity,” Blakespear’s letter states.

What’s most distressing about the Coral Tree Farm case is the city bureaucracy’s apparent lack of support for a longtime landowner and agricultural operation, instead siding with newer neighbors who apparently don’t like living next to a working farm but bought in the neighborhood anyway.

Blakespear’s letter describes how the city has used a developer’s property description — not farmer Laurel Mehl’s — as part of its justification in clamping down on Mehl’s agricultural activities. Blakespear also cites the state’s Right to Farm Act, which is partially designed to reduce nuisance complaints against agricultural activities.

The Right to Farm Act, available on San Diego County’s government website, states in part: “No agricultural activity, operation, or facility, or appurtenances thereof, conducted or maintained for commercial purposes, and in a manner consistent with proper and accepted customs and standards, as established and followed by similar agricultural operations in the same locality, shall be or become a nuisance, private or public, due to any changed condition in or about the locality, after it has been in operation for more than three years if it was not a nuisance at the time it began.”

Coral Tree Farm and its predecessors have been in operation for decades on the property, far more than three years. The farm was there long before the homes were.

The Right to Farm Act, implemented in 1981, also provides a guideline that the city of Encinitas should consider: “This section shall prevail over any contrary provision of any ordinance or regulation of any city, county, city and county, or other political subdivision of the state. However, nothing in this section shall preclude a city, county, city and county, or other political subdivision of this state, acting within its constitutional or statutory authority and not in conflict with other provisions of state law, from adopting an ordinance that allows notification to a prospective homeowner that the dwelling is in close proximity to an agricultural activity, operation, facility, or appurtenances thereof …”

So the act supersedes local regulation, yet leaves open the option for a city to adopt an ordinance to notify prospective homeowners that they are buying property near an agricultural operation. Did Encinitas notify the residents who’ve since filed complaints against Coral Tree Farm that they were buying property near an agricultural operation at the time they were considering their purchases? Even if Encinitas has no such ordinance, couldn’t the current homeowners have seen this for themselves?

At the Encinitas Planning Commission’s June 5 meeting, commissioners were presented with an outline of how the city should proceed in developing its Housing Element Update, a document designed to guide future housing within local and state guidelines.

The Housing Element Update project has been coined “Encinitas Style,” with five “hearts” representing each community within the city.

At the meeting, Commissioner Anthony Brandenburg had a blunt question: “What does ‘Encinitas Style’ mean? Is there a meaning to that? Is there a definition you can give me?”

City Planner Manjeet Ranu answered: “The community really values its identity. There’s a collective identity to the whole city of Encinitas. … The term ‘Encinitas Style’ is a simplistic way of suggesting that the way we go about doing this is our way, to fit our lifestyle, which is the Encinitas lifestyle.”

The Coral Tree Farm case shows Encinitas at a crossroads. What exactly is “Encinitas Style?” What is the “Encinitas lifestyle?”

Is it a community of million-dollar suburban homes with an intolerance of its agricultural heritage? Or is it a community where the residents who live in those homes — or homes of any monetary value — enjoy the fruits of that heritage in the form of the modern-day urban farm?

Encinitas leaders must address agriculture’s place in the city. And Encinitas residents must embrace what makes their hometown unique.

Roman S. Koenig is editor and publisher of the North Coast Current. Columns are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of North Coast Current ownership. Comment below or submit letters to the editor at letters@northcoastcurrent.com.

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6 Comments

6 Responses to “Point of View: Urban farm tiff has quite a plot”

  1. Lynn Marr on June 13th, 2014 11:51 am

    Thank you for an informative and honest look at this topic. This article is well written, and persuasive! We support Coral Tree Farm, together with preserving and enriching our unique community character in Encinitas.

    Pre-existing, grandfathered agricultural uses on land now zoned residential, as almost all former ag land has been, here, in Encinitas, must be considered legal, non conforming. Continuing pre-existing agricultural uses are part of owners’ and the community’s property rights.

    Also, community gardens should be allowed and encouraged in all Encinitas zoning divisions. No minor use permits should be required, as a way to collect more fees, a form of hidden taxes. Too often Encinitas residents are being over-regulated and under-served by public officials caught up in the bureaucracy of the machine, collecting revenues, increasing operating expenses, giving undue weight to a few frequent complainers who don’t appreciate the diversity of our small, laid back, beach town, formerly the Flower Capitol of the World.

  2. Catherine Blakespear on June 13th, 2014 7:58 pm

    This article nails the heart of the issue! (Thank you Roman for your clear-eyed analysis)

    The issue comes down to what type of city we want to be. Do we want to drive our few remaining farms out of business through narrow-minded interpretations of antiquated city codes or do we want to encourage greenhouse sites and small avocado and citrus orchards to evolve and embrace the renaissance in urban agriculture that is sweeping other forward-thinking cities? Given our agricultural history it’s shocking that we need to be fighting for this.

    Coral Tree Farm has without question been in agriculture since before her parents purchased the property more than 60 years ago. Any alternate position by the city planning department is absurd and leaves nearly everyone who considers it incredulous. But this issue is much larger than Coral Tree Farm. If you support local food sources, small farms, and the sense of place and community that those businesses bring please speak up! Tell your city council and the city manager about it. They can be reached at council@encinitasca.gov and citymanager@encinitasca.gov

    Thank you,
    Catherine S. Blakespear
    (Running for City Council in November to get these types of things accomplished!)

  3. R.T. on June 14th, 2014 8:04 am

    “The irony the city faces now is that the very effort to control local growth and preserve industry and heritage could well lead to its demise.” Uhm… no. The effort had been twisted by developer interests, including growers turned developers, by the time issues were turned into ordinances until the Right to Vote act passed.

  4. Roman Koenig on June 14th, 2014 9:26 am

    RT:

    Thank you for your comment, but I respectfully disagree only in this aspect: It took two decades for residents to rally enough force to get the concept of the Right to Vote Act on the ballot. You’re looking at my comment in the context of the past year and Prop. A’s passage, which is not the context I’m talking about. I’m talking about the context of its 28 years as a city. I’m talking about how this city, in its effort to govern itself and protect its interests, apparently neglected to define key aspects of its character in ways that could have prevented all of this in the first place. That goes far beyond last year’s Prop. A election. But overall, I know where you’re coming from and still agree with your point in the context of where we find ourselves today.

    Roman Koenig
    North Coast Current

  5. Eric Anderson on June 14th, 2014 8:26 am

    In the original 1986 general plan the intent was that agriculture as conforming use in many of the residential zoned land. This served the agriculture community well and by 1995 the wholesale farm gate in the City limits exceed 100 million dollars where neighboring communities like Solano Beach had lost all most existing ag due more to well meaning zoning that destroyed the existing farmer. The economic impact was to the community was the same as hosting a “Super Bowl” in the City and it is those agriculture operations that helped the City financial by not being a cost of providing infrastructure and services.
    Urban planners over the years in the City of Encinitas and the County have continued a regulatory war on our right to farm as spelled out in the County wide Act that during the creation of the Encintas General plan was meant to cover the existing agriculture in the City as well as policies that were meant to let us farm (and to stop farming).
    Coral Tree Farm is like many agricultural operations in the City clearly exactly part of what creates the “Encinitas Style” along with the surf community, the artists, the latinos, and the broad diversity of unique individuals who do Kooky things to statues.
    There are still agriculture operations in the City as long as the City staff continues to correctly implement the intent of the original general plan vision that the agriculture community worked for we will continue to grow and thrive. That is if the reverse NIMBYS don’t who don’t want us here are not shamed into supporting us by the rest of you.

  6. Al Rodbell on June 14th, 2014 9:12 am

    Lynn: One person’s “complainer” is another’s “whistleblower.” The transformation of a rural agrarian community into a bedroom suburb can’t be without stresses; the goal is to minimize the acrimony. This can be facilitated with clearly articulated policies known to all, which we seem to have fallen somewhat short of. My statement given to this reporter, in the context of clarifying HOA superseding rights, was:

    “The encouragement of local gardens should be in the context of existing laws and zoning, rather than seeming to ignore these carefully crafted restrictions that allow residents to live in close proximity. Residential zoning precludes commercial endeavors such as selling produce, and should not be overruled in this burst of enthusiasm.”

    Let’s hope that articles such as this that provide the necessary background of issues become the norm for this publication.

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Point of View: Urban farm tiff has quite a plot