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Santa Barbara County Supervisors Vote Down Revisions On Agricultural Hoop House Rules

Board members ask for more information after rejecting Supervisor Peter Adam's proposal to allow taller hoop structures without building permits

“Hoop houses” are beoming a more common sight in northern Santa Barbara County and the Board of Supervisors wrestled Tuesday with how to revise regulations for the ag structures.
“Hoop houses” are beoming a more common sight in northern Santa Barbara County and the Board of Supervisors wrestled Tuesday with how to revise regulations for the ag structures. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A growing number of “hoop houses” sparked a debate about what kind of height limits and other rules, if any, Santa Barbara County should implement for the agricultural tool increasingly dotting the landscape.

Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam brought the matter to the board Tuesday, but saw the majority of his colleagues reject a motion to allow hoop houses up to 36 feet in height without building permits.

Only Adam and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino voted in favor of the proposed revision.

The discovery that the hoop-shaped structures for growing some fruit — blueberries, raspberries and blackberries — are potentially prohibited and limited in height by county rules prompted Adam to take the matter to the board. 

“This is a really huge problem that we kind of ran into,” Adam said before the vote. “We think we’ve designed a solution that can work for everybody.”

After Adam’s motion failed, Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr made a motion that staff from multiple departments — planning, building, ag commissioner’s, farm advisors — return to the the board with information on various issues and options on a short-term, mid-term and long-term basis.  

“I think from that, that will get us to the point where we know what kind of program we might want to recommend for a long-range planning item, if that is indeed necessary, or whether there are some other paths to look at some of these issues sooner than that,” Farr said, before her motion passed unanimously.

Hoop houses protect plants from damaging wind, defends against sun damage, allows more efficient water uses and leads to less pesticides. They also are preferred by farmworkers and overall lead to stronger plant growth and greater fruit yields, according to Bob Nelson, Adam’s chief of staff.

Adam’s staff proposed including plastic-covered structures without height restrictions or required footings under building permit exemptions and including it as an allowed use on agriculturally zoned land.

Currently, one rule restricts the height of local hoop houses to 12 feet.

“Virtually all hoop structures in Santa Barbara County exceed the current height limits,” Nelson said, adding other county regulations create uncertainty with the term “in-ground footings.”

Adam said growers are paying $12,000 to $15,000 an acre to install the structures.

Supervisor Peter Adam proposed allowing these so-called hoop houses without building permits if they are 36 feet tall or less, but other board members asked for more information from staff. Click to view larger
Supervisor Peter Adam proposed allowing these so-called hoop houses without building permits if they are 36 feet tall or less, but other board members asked for more information from staff.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“I think we have to solve this thing sooner than later because of  the investment that’s going on,” he said, adding hoop structures are an evolution of technology.

“To me they’re just like sprinkler pipe,” Adam added. “It’s a production technique. It’s a tool.”

Adam’s proposed amendments were supported by the Agricultural Advisory Committee.

Now used for growing berries, one farmer said he could envision them some day being used for broccoli or cauliflower. If so, Adam said taller hoop houses may be needed.

“I really want to preserve everybody’s flexibility and not preclude the investment,” Adam said, adding some have talked about using hoop houses for wine grape production.

Requiring permits for each hoop structure would make it unwieldy for growers, Adam said.

“We say we support agriculture and this is a way that agriculture has evolved,” he said,

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he wanted any law to include reasonable height restrictions.

“Not having any parameters is a big big concern,” he said, adding there’s a difference between flexibility and carte blanche.

“I think it’s important to give it some general parameter and not leave it so open-ended,” Carbajal said.

“That does catch my attention in a real negative way because unless you deal with that it’s fraught for real challenges in the future.” 

He suggested the height be restricted to 18 feet as a compromise to Adam’s proposal for 36 feet.

Chair Janet Wolf said she didn’t feel comfortable implementing a change Tuesday, and that the item needed to be looked at more carefully.

“This seems like it’s more complicated than just a minor change in some language and that a more extensive process is required,” said Wolf, who represents the Second District.

Farr said she agreed laws need to be nimble to keep up with agriculture.

“I think this is certainly an area where we need more information,” she said, adding it’s a bigger issue that can’t be fixed with a tweak and requires more information from experts on staff.

However, Lavagnino said that the experts actually are the growers using the hoop houses. 

He noted that those who typically oppose development cite a need to protect prime ag land, he said. 

“Well, protecting prime ag means more than just not building on ag lands. It means making agriculture viable,” he said.

“For me, that means moving with the times, changing with the technology and allowing those that provide our food supply to do it in the most efficient manner possible.”

County staff said hoop houses have been located on thousands of acres for a couple of decades in the county with no complaints.

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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