Drivers traveling on Highway 41 near Templeton have likely seen a red water tank rising above the nearby olive grove.
The decorative tank advertises The Groves on 41, an olive farm and event space, and has become the subject of a debate between the owners and the San Luis Obispo County Planning and Building Department.
The Tallent family, which has owned the property since 2011, claims they’ve made thousands of dollars in county-requested changes to the tank during the past three years.
Now, county staff want the family to move it farther away from the road, which is impossible due to the location of their olive trees and the harvest equipment they use, co-owner Karen Tallent said.
The Tallents are in the process of obtaining a minor use permit so they can host olive tastings on their property. But the county has continually “moved the goal post” when it comes to achieving compliance with code enforcement, Tallent said.
“Every time they have asked us to do something, well, we’ve done it,” she said. “We are serious, we’re sincere about getting this tasting room open.”
Tallent argues the water tank sign is “farm art,” and she compares it to similarly mounted objects seen throughout the Midwest, or the large roadside artwork that’s prominently featured in Salinas Valley fields.
“That’s sort of what we wanted to draw attention to, our sign,” Tallent said. “But we didn’t want it to stand out like a billboard.”
The Groves on 41 sign history
Starting in 2016, the Tallent family began making adjustments to their sign — which they initially thought wasn’t subject to certain regulations through an agricultural building exemption — at the direction of the county.
The Tallents replaced a mention of their website on the sign with the words “olive farm,” submitted construction as-built plans and paid for a structural engineer to examine the sign — all of which cost close to $3,000, Karen Tallent said.
When the family paid $8,200 to begin pursuing a minor use permit, county staff told Tallent her sign still didn’t adhere to county code.
“I wasn’t even aware that was an issue anymore,” Tallent said.
Now, the family has been told the sign — which is currently rooted in concrete and rebar — needs to be moved back or come down, Tallent said. The family also has the option of obtaining a conditional use permit, she added.
She acknowledges that the family has been working to bring various other aspects of their property into compliance with regulations. But doing so has been costly and challenging, Tallent said.
“A lot of personnel changes within the county, so it’s not always the same person telling you what to do,” she said. “So they’re telling you different things.”
SLO County concerns
The county first began dealing with the Groves on 41 sign in September 2016, according to Trevor Keith, director of the county Planning and Building Department.
County staff also found “unpermitted modifications had been made to an agricultural storage barn .... on the property, and that the converted barn structure was being used as an unpermitted events facility,” Keith wrote in an email to The Tribune.
He said department staff has given Tallent different advertising options and helped her with the minor use permit process.
“The scope of her project has changed many times over the past two years,” Keith wrote. “At this time, we are unclear of her intent regarding a land use permit at The Groves on 41.”
As for the sign, it needs to conform to setback and wind load requirements, and it’s a safety issue to have it so close to the road, he said.
“If it blows over onto Highway 41, it would create a potentially dangerous situation, risking harm to individuals and families which use this right of way,” Keith wrote in his email.
‘Neighbors first and a family farm second’
Tallent wrote an open letter encouraging any neighbors who have concerns about the sign to come forward and talk to the family.
“We really are neighbors first and a family farm second,” Tallent said.
The family also started a petition encouraging people to show their support for the sign. Tallent wants to bring the issue before the county Board of Supervisors, if possible.
Although county staff try to be flexible as they interpret rules, they can’t “arbitrarily change existing regulations,” Keith said.
“We understand that there are many individuals in the community who like The Groves on 41 sign and like the improvements that have been made to the property,” Keith wrote in an email.
“The county’s code enforcement action isn’t based on the level of community support — which goes both ways in these situations,” he wrote. “It’s about code compliance and ensuring that property owners comply with the rules as they are written, which are intended to protect the health, safety and welfare of the county and its citizens.”
Tallent hopes she can resolve the issue as quickly as possible, so her family has time to sell products such as olive oil during the holiday shopping season.
“We’re a family farm,” she said. “All we want to do is sell our products from our farm on our farm.”