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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