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Nipomo nursery's neighbors complain that it's operating as distribution center

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For months, residents of a Nipomo neighborhood have kept a close watch on the goings-on of a nearby wholesale nursery.

One woman has meticulously tracked the number of semi-trucks that have driven to and from Viva Farms at all hours, passing her home in the process. Others have taken photos of tractor-trailers parked along local roads and the trash they say drivers have left behind.

The truck traffic is the main issue for neighbors who contend Viva Farms has been operating more as a distribution center than a nursery — which, if county officials determine to be true, would put that part of the business out of compliance with local land-use requirements.

Nursery owner Steve Pyle, though, said he’s studied the land-use code and believes he’s operating in compliance.

Over the past month since he learned of the concerns, Pyle said he has drastically curtailed the nursery’s hours of operation, has relocated his employees’ parking and has been wetting local roads to cut down on dust. He plans to cancel future production of fast-growing, high-volume crops to reduce the amount of product leaving the facility, and he says he will remove trash from the roads monthly.

“We’re doing all we can, and we want to do more,” said Pyle, who owns Viva Farms and Plant Source, a sales and distribution company that ships the farms’ products. “We are open for discussion and dialogue and improvement.”

County planners and officials with the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office have been investigating the residents’ complaints to determine whether some of Viva Farms’ activities cross a line into operating more as a distribution center than a nursery.

Viva Farms is at 1091 Viva Way, off Camino Caballo in an area that allows greenhouses, but not transit or distribution centers.

County officials haven’t had an issue like this before and haven’t defined at what point Viva Farms, or any other greenhouse operation, would cross the line from grower to distribution center.

“A normal greenhouse operation has some level of distribution,” said Matt Janssen, division manager with the San Luis Obispo County Planning and Building Department. “So how much can they do before they are mainly a distribution center and not just a greenhouse?”

If county officials do eventually have to make that determination, it could affect how the other 70 wholesale nurseries in San Luis Obispo County operate.

“We’re concerned about jumping into this determination too fast because it could have unintended consequences on all greenhouse operations,” Janssen said. “We are taking the time to make this right.”

In the meantime, county Supervisor Paul Teixeira and members of the Central Coast Greenhouse Growers Association have been involved in discussions and hope to help the parties find a compromise.

“It has to be some agreement that will allow the business to still operate and allow it to be safe for the neighbors and address their issues,” said Dave Pruitt, president of the growers association’s board of directors.

Added Teixeira: “We’re not taking this lightly. We’re looking for the best situation that will help both parties.”

At the moment, though, local residents are not satisfied. A group gathered Wednesday morning at neighbor Mike Berry’s home and shared photos and stories of close calls with the trucks.

Neighbors said they’ve seen more than 20, and occasionally more than 30, tractor-trailers lumbering down the small rural lanes during a 24-hour period.

“They’re just way too big for what these streets are intended for,” Berry said. “We want the distribution taken out.”

Pyle, though, said he grows “well over 50 percent” of the product that ships out of the nursery, with the rest coming from other growers. He bought a 5-acre parcel but more recently has leased an additional 15 acres, and he acknowledged the truck traffic has increased as a result.

He said logs show that employees loaded an average of about 10 trucks per day during the spring season that’s just wrapping up. He restricted operating hours in early June from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Pyle said he plans to hold an open house July 28 and hopes the neighbors will attend to share their concerns.

“I want to be a good neighbor. I want to retire here,” he said.

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