Trouble is brewing in Santa Rita Hills, one of the premier wine-growing areas in California stretching along Highway 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. In December, landowners of Lakeview Estates, 35 40-acre parcels surrounded by agriculture, petitioned the Santa Barbara Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, to create a Community Service District, or CSD. This would allow them to bring in water, sewers and access roads so they can develop land that they knew when purchased could not be developed.
Neighboring farmers, ranchers and environmental groups strongly opposed the project. Currently, the 40-acre parcels are largely undeveloped, and some are planted in grapes or lavender or used for grazing cattle — uses that are compatible with agriculture. Bringing water, sewers and public roads into the area would allow increased development, including homes, which currently landowners are unable to build. With homes, these parcels, which were bought well below market rate because they couldn’t be developed, would be worth millions of dollars. And this new development and increased population would have a negative impact on surrounding agriculture.
On June 5, the project was resubmitted to LAFCO with changes to address some of these concerns. Staff recommended limiting the scope of the CSD to the creation of internal roads. It would not have the authority to supply or distribute water, or to provide other services outside the district. Nor would it have the authority to claim eminent domain to build an all-weather access road through its neighbor’s property, as some had feared.
At first glance, this may seem like a reasonable way to accommodate both the landowners who need internal roads, and the agricultural and environmental communities, who are concerned about the negative impact of development on agriculture. Without water and an access road, development would be unlikely.
But there are at least three problems with this solution. First, since the original goal of the landowners was to bring water, sewers and access roads into the area, once the limited CSD is created and the internal roads are established, they will likely petition LAFCO for increased services. As one neighboring farmer put it, creating a CSD would “let the camel’s nose inside the tent,” thus encouraging further intrusion.
Second, if internal roads are the landowners’ sole objective, there are other, more appropriate ways to achieve that goal without creating a public entity with a five-member board and the authority to collect taxes.
Third, and most important, LAFCO is mandated by law to discourage urban sprawl and preserve agriculture. Specific factors must be considered when reviewing a proposal, including “the likelihood of significant growth in the area … and the effect of the proposed action and of alternate actions on adjacent areas.”
Several LAFCO commissioners argued that allowing improvements on 40-acre parcels already planted in grapes or used for grazing cattle would not constitute the urbanization of rural areas or negatively affect surrounding agriculture. However, the 40-acre parcels created in the 1960s have remained in agriculture and relatively undeveloped precisely because they lack services, including water, sewers, and all-weather roads. Santa Barbara County’s current Land Use Element discourages dividing agricultural lands into parcels smaller than 100 acres. Forty-acre parcels are reserved for semi-rural areas that can support increased development. This is not the case with Lakeview Estates.
Creating a CSD — even one limited in scope — will create new demand for increased services, and this will negatively affect surrounding agriculture.
Viable, sustainable agriculture is threatened when increased development and population are brought into rural areas. Not only does it limit current ag operations (how often and when they can spray pesticides, for example), but future operations that neighbors might find offensive. Development also drives up land prices, and this, along with limits on production, sometimes leads farmers and ranchers to sell out to developers. When that happens, land uniquely suited for food production is lost, virtually forever.
The Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN) strongly urges LAFCO to deny the landowners’ petition. Creating an island of urbanization or semi-rural development in the heartland of Santa Rita Hills — some of the most productive and valuable land in California — must be rejected when LAFCO reconsiders the matter on July 3.
Deborah Brasket is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at 805.722.5094 or at email@example.com. This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.