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County exempts small farmers from some Paso Robles groundwater rules

Supervisors Bruce Gibson, left, and Adam Hill consider points raised at Tuesday's hearing on the county's emergency ordinance enacted to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin.
Supervisors Bruce Gibson, left, and Adam Hill consider points raised at Tuesday's hearing on the county's emergency ordinance enacted to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday gave small farmers a break when they approved a list of criteria for exemptions from the county’s emergency ordinance to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Supervisors voted unanimously to exempt farms smaller than 20 acres from some of the rules that require evidence of contracts to do work on the farm in preparation for planting.

Owners of small vineyards told supervisors that they do much of the site preparation themselves and do not contract out for it.

Supervisors also removed several requirements for vineyards site preparation work that would be hard to prove, such as evidence of tilling or deep ripping of the soil and trellis installation prior to Aug. 27, when the emergency ordinance went into effect.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold said the exemptions are needed because planting a vineyard typically takes four years and the expense of getting a crop in the ground can be considerable.

“It’s very complex,” she said. “We need to give people options and flexibility.”

The county has received 15 requests for exemptions, all but one of them for new vineyards. It is now up to Acting County Planning Director Kami Griffin to evaluate the applications to determine which ones meet the new criteria.

A preliminary review of the applications showed that nine will likely satisfy the criteria with the other six needing to provide more information, Griffin said.

The purpose of the exemptions — or vested rights — was to recognize that some growers had made significant investments preparing for planting in the days immediately prior to the ordinance going into effect and that denying them the ability to plant would be an economic hardship.

The ordinance requires that water used by any new planting in the basin would have to be offset by an equal amount of conservation elsewhere in the basin so that depletion of the aquifer is reduced.

On Tuesday, supervisors defended their decision to enact the emergency ordinance, saying that the basin is in crisis with many wells going dry.

Supervisor Caren Ray likened the need for the county to take action to protect the basin to coming on the scene of an accident.

Supervisor Adam Hill agreed, saying that some financial hardship is necessary in order to start dealing with the problem.

“At some point, you have to stop the bleeding,” he said.

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