Board of Supervisors get an earful on changing ag land rules

Ranchers, farmers, real estate agents, appraisers and others who make their livings off the land gave the Board of Supervisors a message last week: “Get off our backs.”

Two dozen people, some of them representing larger groups such as the Farm Bureau and Wine Growers alliance, protested changes the county wants to make in their storm water runoff and grading guidelines.

Supervisors said Tuesday their proposals were not as far-reaching as the protesters believed, but agreed to defer any final action until March 2. Chairman Frank Mecham said they would have “more of a workshop.”

Supervisor Adam Hill suggested that people look at the existing ordinance and what is being proposed.

“It’s not a heck of a lot of change,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors was seeking to alter its grading ordinances in order to comply with state mandates about runoff that take effect in March. But they went beyond that to update their guidelines that regulate grading on agricultural land.

Broadly, the county was trying to “stabilize soil and make sure sediment does not end up where we don’t want it,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. In other words, trying to keep pollutants out of streams, creeks and aquifers.

But they took the occasion to make changes in the existing agricultural restrictions. They did so for many reasons, one of which was to crack down on people who were abusing them.

However, those in the audience took umbrage.

“You don’t need to protect soil from a farmer,” said Andy Caldwell of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, a property rights group.

County code enforcement planners said that since 2003 there have been 350 code enforcement actions regarding illegal grading, nearly half on agricultural land. In some of the cases, planning staffers said, people grade illegally and write off the subsequent fines as part of the cost of doing business.

Speakers said if that is the case, the county should go after the scofflaws.

Planners said that is what they were trying to do with the changes, which were approved by the county Planning Commission.

“If we need to strengthen code enforcement, why can’t we simply do that?” asked Supervisor Katcho Achadjian.

Several speakers said the county is over-regulating.

“This board has no business requiring permits to work the land,” said Pat Molnar of Cayucos.

Susan Garretson of Paso Robles accused the county of trying to engineer “another power grab by the government, spurred on by a couple of our socialist supervisors.”

One point repeatedly made during the five-hour hearing was that the regulations need more clarity. For example, the staff report for the Tuesday discussion was 363 pages long, and as the speakers said, nobody is going to read all that.

Participants generally applauded the idea of increased outreach that would help those who want to do something with their land to understand before they begin the procedures they will have to go through.