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Santa Barbara County Board Leans Toward Taller Agricultural Hoop Houses

Supervisors will soon vote on rule changes for the crop-growing structures widely used in the Santa Maria Valley

County supervisors will consider changing rules for agricultural hoop structures that are used throughout the Santa Maria Valley.
County supervisors will consider changing rules for agricultural hoop structures that are used throughout the Santa Maria Valley.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

The height of agricultural hoop houses in northern Santa Barbara County may be rising.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors narrowly agreed to consider changes allowing 20-foot-tall hoop houses instead of the current 12-foot limit.

Final approval is weeks away as the process has several steps. 

The action came months after the board narrowly rejected any changes, with First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal this time siding with Fourth District’s Peter Adam and Fifth District’s Steve Lavagnino to approve the proposed change.

The discovery that the hoop-shaped structures sprouting up over crops are potentially prohibited and limited in height by county rules prompted Adam to take the matter to the board last fall. 

Efforts to change the allowed height of the plastic-membrane structures from 12 feet to 20 feet turned out to be complicated.

Adam, who is board chair and a farmer, said the hoop structures don’t have typical features of a building and shouldn’t require permits.

“I want to look at these things like sprinkler pipe,” Adam said.

“They’re a production technique. It’s not a building. It’s not a structure. … They’re a production tool. It’s the same as having a tractor.”

The motion approved by the board calls for staff to return in 60 days with a 20-foot height exemption in the local building code. 

Additionally, county staff members will return to the board with the proposed zoning ordinance changes for inland areas included in the long-range work program plan, which is scheduled to be approved by the board during the budget process this spring. 

“I don’t know why this is so, so, so, so difficult,” Lavagnino said at one point.

“We have an exemption that’s at 12 feet, that you told us we could change to 20 feet, and then we would send that to the state and the state would either give their blessing or not give their blessing.”

Landowners would not have certainty about what’s allowed unless both the building code and zoning ordinance are revised, county staff said.

Supervisors Doreen Farr and Janet Wolf voted against the motion, questioning why both building and zoning changes wouldn’t be done at the same time.

"This is not the way to make public policy, I think,” Farr said, adding she doesn’t know if the proposed new height is reasonable. 

Hoop houses in the county already feature varying heights, county officials said. 

The proposed changes drew speakers in favor and opposed to hoop houses.

Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, said hoop houses are important to the vitality of local agriculture, calling them an indispensable tool that helps with pest control and water management. 

“We must encourage, rather than hinder, continued innovation,” Wineman said.

Steve Newell, founder and president of Windset Farms, also favored raising the height. 

“It’s a crop protection tool,” he said, adding that hoop houses are used across the globe.

Adding height to hoop houses will allow some growers to use automatic machinery to pick crops, he said.

His firm is looking at taller hoop houses to install netting over organic crops, such as strawberries or bell peppers, to control bugs. But the netting makes the hoops hotter, requiring additional height for better air circulation, he added. 

Residents who live east of Orcutt opposed raising the height of hoops and asked the board to implement restrictions on their placement near homes. 

“Twenty feet —that’s not a tent anymore, that’s a house,” said Telephone Road resident Bill Anders. 

He said hoop houses popped up 75 feet from his front door three years ago, and recommended the board restrict hoop houses from being placed less than 1,000 feet from homes.

Lake Marie Estates residents also talked about increasing number of hoop houses affecting the aesthetic and open space near their neighborhood, also east of Orcutt.

They also questioned what happens to runoff during rainy weather if more plastic-covered hoop houses cover local fields. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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