While council members said they sympathized with the plight of the financially embattled nonprofit, they were reluctant to waive the fees.
“We have rules,” Councilman Ed Easton said. “We have fees that are set based on what it costs in terms of staff time.”
The outstanding fees are a combination of unpaid balances for the processing of several permits the urban agricultural farm acquired for various operations and structures, including a farm labor camp and commercial poultry operations. Other debt comes from an ordinance amendment request for the sale of produce grown off site and a permit for special events. The $46,873.80 the urban organic farm owes is an unpaid balance for fees that were due in July 2009.
“We’ve been operating in the red since 2010,” Executive Director Mark Tollefson said, citing the poor economy of the last couple of years, coupled with wet weather, as well as the cost of construction needed to bring the farm to code.
Among the things the nonprofit 12-acre organic urban farm must bring back to the City Council in a couple of months is a completed business plan, proof of stability on the organization’s board and an agreed-upon payment schedule for the fees. Staff then will review the fees to assess where reductions may be made, and the City Council will consider its options.
“I think we need to know more and see more,” Goleta Mayor Margaret Connell said.
Fairview Gardens is a 12-acre certified organic farm at 598 N. Fairview Ave. in Goleta. The farm dates back over a century, with the organization formed around it in 1998 in an effort to preserve its agricultural history as well as to serve as a model of a small regional farm within the community. The farm is loved by many who appreciate its mission of growing healthy local food and its efforts to keep the community connected with its food.
As it retained its agricultural operations, residences were built up around the farm, resulting in sometimes uneasy relationships with its closest neighbors, who had to live with the noise, smell and the busy operations.
When the city incorporated in 2002, it inherited a code compliance case for an unpermitted farm worker camp housing several workers who lived on-site in semi-permanent housing. A year later, in an attempt to come into compliance, the organization submitted several applications for other operations.
Tensions with the neighbors remained, as they complained about unsanitary conditions, noise and inadequate farmworker housing. Inspections resulted in orders for the farm to hook up to the sewer system, move the poultry operations off-site and provide better housing. Given the organization’s tight finances, this proved to be a years-long operation, split into several phases.
The farm also had to submit to regular inspections and reporting of its progress, but eventually got back on the neighbors’ good side. Fairview Gardens has completed four of the five phases at a cost of more than $400,000, much of which, Tollefson acknowledged, the organization still owes as a loan. The fifth phase, constructing more permanent housing for the workers, is estimated to cost $1.5 million and has a deadline of July 1, 2013.
Several supporters of Fairview Gardens expressed their heartfelt, even emotional support of the farm’s activities. Some took the City Council to task for what seemed like punitive actions, and others urged the council to waive the outstanding fees.
“We need special places like this,” local resident Vic Cox said, suggesting that the council look into an extended repayment period and other “flexibilities” that may accommodate the farm’s situation.
City staff does not have the leeway to grant waivers or extensions without the direction of the council.
The item will be back before the City Council at its July 21 meeting.