Viva Farms under county scrutiny again over truck traffic, land use

Jan Porter, who lives next to Viva Farms, holds a protest sign near the entrance to Viva Way in 2013.
Jan Porter, who lives next to Viva Farms, holds a protest sign near the entrance to Viva Way in 2013. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County officials have opened a third — and hopefully definitive — investigation into a Nipomo nursery that neighbors contend is also operating as a distribution center.

The county’s past two investigations concluded that Viva Farms, a wholesale facility off Camino Caballo Road, is operating as a greenhouse.

But nearby residents maintain the distribution end of the business, Plant Source Inc., is not complying with local land use rules because distribution centers are not allowed in the rural area.

“The neighbors have requested we take a third look,” said Matt Janssen, division manager in the county’s planning and building department. “We’re looking at essentially the same question: Are they still within nursery specialties, or have they crossed a line and are primarily a warehousing and distribution center?”

Truck traffic remains a main point of contention for neighbors, who have documented for four years the number of 18-wheelers using an 18-foot-wide road to access Viva Farms.

They say their logs show 12 to 17 trucks arriving and leaving the facility each day, resulting in 24 to 34 trips on Camino Caballo Road, resident Nancy Shipley said.

“We are happy to have Viva Farms, a nursery, remain our neighbor,” she said in an email. “However, county code clearly states wholesale/distribution and all trucking facilities are not allowed in rural residential zoning.”

Owner making changes

Nursery owner Steve Pyle said he’s made numerous changes to his business to try to address neighbors’ concerns and believes the number of truck trips has been reduced.

Pyle said he is in the process of converting some of the farm to long-term crops with a nine to 12-month growing cycle, which will help reduce traffic; has instructed drivers to adhere to a “good-neighbor policy”; and has moved parts of his production business out of the county, which resulted in about six layoffs at the Nipomo facility.

Pyle said the nursery has operated on a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule since June 2012, and any traffic outside those hours is infrequent and unplanned. Neighbors dispute this, however, and say Viva Farms receives or ships out plants until late at night, and occasionally until 2 or 4 a.m.

This time, the county investigation will go deeper by measuring traffic from other greenhouses on the Nipomo Mesa and comparing that information to that of Viva Farms. The investigation could take a few months.

Vague county regulations

But even as they take a closer look, county officials face the same issue as before — the greenhouse section of the county’s land use ordinance is purposely vague. The regulations don’t specify how much needs to be grown onsite to qualify as a greenhouse. Nor does the ordinance regulate hours of operation or truck volume.

“As a nursery specialty, it’s also assumed that you will be trucking materials in and out,” Janssen said.

Most of the 20 acres at Viva Farms is used for planting, and only a small area is used for plant distribution, he said. In addition, county staff is hesitant to change land use policies that would affect and possibly disrupt operations at nurseries around the county.

“We wouldn’t define how much truck traffic is OK because now we’re stepping on all the other greenhouses’ toes,” Janssen said.

The county has only ever issued Viva Farms building permits, not land use permits, which would trigger environmental review and possibly requirements such as widening Camino Caballo Road or stipulating hours of operation.

Neighbors say the road is breaking down at the edges because semi trucks pull off the road to let each other pass. Pyle said he’s offered to make any road repairs on the portion of the road not maintained by the county.

Good-neighbor policy

Nurseries in the area generally follow the Central Coast Greenhouse Growers Association’s “good-neighbor policy,” which encourages truck drivers to obey speed limits, turn radios down and not pass other vehicles unless it is safe to do so. It does not suggest hours of operation.

About 17 nurseries belong to the association, including Viva Farms. Krista Herlihy, association administrator, said other nurseries also have high numbers of truck trips.

“In the busy seasons, they get deliveries all night, too,” she said. The association has not taken a position on the Viva Farms case.

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Caren Ray, whose district includes Nipomo, has helped facilitate discussions between county staff, neighbors, Pyle and the growers association.

“As supervisor, it is my goal to strongly encourage Viva Farms to abide by the good-neighbor policy and avoid getting into a regulatory issue,” Ray said. “I really think it’s a community issue and should be solvable within the community.”