By Hans Peter
A back-burner agenda item became a two hour long discussion recently as Yolo supervisors and county staff attempted to make sense of current Williamson Act guidelines, and how they may be modified to best suit both farms and event centers.
Those guidelines seem clear-cut at face value, but when planted with the county’s push for agritourism, things get tangled. Attempts to marry the two objectives have been underway for two years, but confusion and tension still clouded the supervisors’ chambers.
The Williamson Act exists to protect contracted agricultural zones. Any activity on affected parcels of land must only be used for the purpose of cultivation or activities that prove incidental to farming.
Agritourism has brought on events centers and bed and breakfast sites; many have argued over whether or not these sites are supplementary to local farms and their day-to-day operations.
“Twelve workshops, the best thinking and the best presentation, and we’re no where closer to getting any resolution,” said District 1 Supervisor Oscar Villegas, after an hour of debate with his peers. The floor then opened for another hourlong bout of public comment.
Public outcry ranged greatly between traditional farmers and those involved in the agritourism industry.
Talks of agritourism have sprouted since the Farm-to-Fork movement took hold in Northern California. The food-based draw has since led many to the root of their meals: local farms.
That new form of tourism has brought many interested foodies and city residents to rural areas, including the agriculturally honed Yolo County.
Event centers like Park Winters, Field and Pond and several bed and breakfasts gained popularity, as many tourists wanted an idyllic look at country life, complete with farm-fresh dining.
Setting up dining areas, gazebos and wedding spots may prove easy enough, but doing so in tandem with nearby operational farms can be tricky.
Among many concerns like road traffic and complaints of noise and odor, Last Tuesday’s meeting brought up crop spraying, a major concern for both farms and the agritourism events occurring on the next parcel.
Supervisors discussed the policy surrounding spraying, bringing Agricultural Commissioner John Young into the discussion.
Young said there’s an obvious concern with spraying, as airborne particles of pesticides don’t adhere to zoning laws and parcel boundaries.
Spray buffers were discussed, but after a long volley of questions, it became clear that a buffer would not be enough to ease the concerns of event centers or farmers.
That’s to say nothing of the fact that many parcels of Yolo County fall under Williamson Act contracts, which are designed to preserve agricultural land. That act also calls for localized guidelines regarding “compatible use” of a property that would prove incidental to the success of a farm.
Granted, definitions of “compatible use” and “incidental” have been difficult to establish, and will likely require further modification. Granted, supervisors, commissioners and planners may cushion the definition and allow for subjectivity within land use permits.
“Zoning is a fairly clumsy way to kind of set the criteria for all types of uses that may be applied for in the ag zones,” said the county’s principal planner, Eric Parfrey.
Current zoning allows property owners to apply for small or large event center permits, which would allow a certain number of events per month. Those permits would also require events centers to limit some gatherings based on attendance and traffic.
The agritourism item warranted a large amount of comment from the public, stemming from event coordinators and farmers.
The hearing echoed some of the ongoing concerns over agritourism in Yolo County. In general, event centers have dealt with some push-back from local farmers and environmental organizations that want to make farming the first priority of all Yolo parcels zoned for that purpose. Event coordinators believe they are working within policy to carry out their business, but farmers have questioned whether or not those properties are helping or hindering nearby farms.
Field and Pond Co-owner Dahvie James spoke on behalf of his event center, which has been contested in recent years.
“I think we can all agree that people who are qualified should be able to (run an events center or B&B),” James said.
James pointed out that the suggested amendments to zoning would require such locations to be run only by farmers, and not those in the hospitality industry.
Owners of Park Winters also spoke, warning that the key issues in the policy only pertained to a small portion of the county.
Wine grape grower Mark Wilson also spoke on behalf of agritourism, claiming the economic return of places like Sugar Mill has “saved” Clarksburg.
“We’ve had a million people through Clarksburg now,” he said, referring to the added tourism in the past decade. “… It’s a living experiment; we’ve been able to make things work out there so far.”
Clarksburg has a different zoning ordinance, and the rural area can host more events per month than new special events permits would allow. Wilson said a little bit of leeway has been needed for Clarksburg, and other rural areas would also need some flexibility between neighbors, their properties and what they do on them.
“I don’t think we should be in a position where we’re hamstringing the whole county because of particular problems going on in certain areas,” he added.
Long-time agriculture and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rich Rominger, also made an argument in favor of tightening down the policy.
“I think if you want to preserve farmland, than all event centers, large or small, should be incidental to the farming or ranching operation…,” Rominger said. He also said that any applied spray buffers shouldn’t be tied to the lease of land, but should be considered on a case-by-case basis by the agricultural commissioner.
Local farmer Stephanie Atherton said the proposed changes, especially a suggested spray buffer, would mean she could not open an events center due to the size of the parcel.
“… it would result in the creation of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’” Atherton said. She also suggested that agritourism should be subject the real world of agriculture, complete with noise, dust, odors and other environments that may not be found in typical tourism areas. It could be a nuisance to tourists, but that would be known to them.
“Shouldn’t that be our risk?” she said. “Shouldn’t we be responsible for informing potential clients of those risks? …Governmental agencies are turning into nannies.”
DOWN THE ROAD
All arguments aside, Yolo County Farm Bureau President Nancy Lea said that the decision was simply too early to call. Moreover, September marks the harvest season for local farmers, and the bureau would be unable to weigh in on the decision.
To top it off, Villegas said the entire process would likely need some more review with all the comments in mind.
“It seems as though we’ve maybe lost sight of what the initial policy objective was,” he said. “I think over the course of the last couple of years, we’ve spun it out of control in some respects.”
Other supervisors agreed, suggesting staff would need to rehash their approach.
District 4 Supervisor Jim Provenza said he would like to see some minimum requirements, but some discretion also. District 3 Supervisor Matt Rexroad said he would prefer to steer away from “subjective” policy.
Villegas said the county should be wary of creating a policy that would encompass too much — with so much to be accomplished in one fell swoop, it becomes a matter of minutiae and semantics.
“We’re now trying to shoehorn all of these ‘what ifs’ into a perfect policy objective,” he said. “And I don’t think we’ll ever get that perfect policy clarity, if we try to fit every possible solution into this objective.”
Supervisors opted to kick the decision down the road, and the item will resurface on the Nov. 7 meeting agenda.