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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 9:27 am | Fair 56º


Agricultural Hoop-Structure Regulations Debated Again at Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors

County weighing agricultural benefits of hoop houses with environmental impacts, including aesthetics

Hoop houses Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County’s Board of Supervisors discussed regulations for temporary agricultural hoop houses Tuesday.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

The word “cannabis” is not in the Santa Barbara County staff report on regulating hoop structures, but their use by marijuana cultivators was a central issue in the Board of Supervisors discussion Tuesday.

The county started reviewing its rules for the tunneled structures years ago, and after several work sessions, the Planning Commission sent the supervisors a list of recommended rules for the “crop protection structures,” which are defined as temporary and not allowed to have power, lighting or plumbing.

The supervisors held a four-hour discussion on the issue Tuesday, and asked county staff to bring back the ordinance amendment proposal with some changes from the recommendations: exempting hoop structures (or hoop houses) from getting approvals (like permits) if they are under 20 feet tall and on slopes of 30 percent or less, are 20,000 square feet or less, have creek setbacks, and are on “historically intensively cultivated agricultural land” farmed at least one of the previous three years.

Structures that don’t fit the exemption criteria would need a zoning clearance for less than 20,000 square feet, and a land-use permit for larger installations.

Hoop structures in the Santa Ynez Valley Design Control Overlay and Gaviota Coast Critical Viewshed Corridor Overlay trigger approvals at a lower level, at 4,000 square feet.   

The Planning Commission recommended development plans for approvals, which typically cost more and take longer than the other permit types, and include discretionary review rather than staff-level review.

Crop protection structures do not require building permits, and neighboring San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties do not require building permits for removable, plastic-covered hoop structures less than 12 feet tall.

Enforcement is complaint-driven, said Planning and Development Director Dianne Black.

She added that the county hadn’t received complaints about hoop structures until recently, and that the complaints have been for cannabis grows, not other agriculture.

The supervisors had a hard time getting to three votes of agreement on any of the exemption criteria, and in the end voted 3-2 to support the conditions listed above, in a South County and North County split: Gregg Hart, Joan Hartmann and Das Williams in favor, and Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino opposed.

Hartmann wanted to make separate hoop structure regulations for cannabis cultivation versus “food and fiber” agriculture, but her colleagues weren’t on board.

Hoop houses in Carpinteria Click to view larger
Hoop houses line agricultural land in the Carpinteria Valley.  (Peter Hartmann / Noozhawk photo)

The proposed ordinance amendments will be back at the Board of Supervisors on April 9.

Multiple supervisors have said they think the fight to regulate hoop structure is, in the context of cannabis cultivation proliferating, a fight to limit marijuana grows.

“I really think this has absolutely become a proxy war for cannabis,” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said.

“Some people have decided for them on their property it’s better to grow cannabis or hemp and that’s a decision that they should be allowed to make, and if they need a hoop to do that, they should be allowed to use a hoop to do that,” he said.

Farmers speaking during public comment talked about the benefits of using hoop structures for all sorts of crops, from vegetables to berries to cannabis, and asked the county not to require development plans or permits.

They said hoops extend the growing season, conserve water, reduce mold, and can help protect crops from weather and pests.

“Hoops are as important to me as trellises are to vineyards,” Carpinteria Valley farmer Nate Diaz said.

Santa Maria Valley farmer Andy Rice said the agriculture industry changes over time, and needs the tools to do so – including hoop structures.

“The ability to adapt is critical, and without it I can guarantee you production in Santa Maria will shift south, and when I say south I mean Mexico,” Rice said.

Some speakers arguing for hoop house restrictions complained about the proliferation of them for marijuana cultivation, and the harsh visual impacts of them being erected on hillsides, sometimes causing glare.

Renée O’Neill, a resident of Tepusquet Canyon east of Santa Maria, asked the board to ban the use of hoop structures for cannabis cultivators. Berry farmers aren’t using night lighting and erecting them on steep hillsides, she said.

A letter she submitted to the county put it another way: “Horrendous Hoops! Growers in cahoots! Changing paradise to junk land! Pot scofflaws invade scenic Santa Barbara County!”

While the current and proposed Hoop Structures Ordinance prohibit power infrastructure and lighting in hoop structures, some are trying to change that. 

Cannabis cultivator Bruce Watkins of Orcutt applied to amend county ordinances to allow lighting in hoop structures, and allow generators as the primary source of electricity for cannabis cultivation.

Watkins wrote in his application that artificial lighting can allow more crops per year, and keep immature plants from flowering. 

The County Planning Commission last week declined to accept the ordinance amendment application and referred the proposal to the Board of Supervisors.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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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