CARMEL VALLEY — The state Department of Fish and Game has asked the San Diego city attorney's office to file criminal charges against an embattled tomato grower who plowed a stream bed to make way for farming operations in this bucolic valley.
Lt. Ronald Hess, a fish and game warden for North County, said the Ukegawa Brothers farming company violated the state Fish and Game Code by failing to notify state officials and obtain permits before bulldozing a stretch of McGonigle Creek in preparation for planting earlier this year.
Hess said the company's action wiped out a large amount of vegetation growing along the creek's banks and would increase the amount of silt swept downstream into Los Penasquitos Lagoon by winter rains. The lagoon is home to several endangered birds and has deteriorated because of runoff from nearby developments.
"They just went on in there and graded across a creek bed, and that's a violation of our code," Hess said. "We require notification so we can prevent any environmental damage and protect the true creek alignment."
Peter Mackauf, general manager of the farming company, called McGonigle Creek "a dried up stream" and said he was unaware of Fish and Game restrictions on plowing in the area.
"We're not talking about a well-defined, eroded creek," Mackauf said. "This so-called creek is perfectly dry now, and it's really just a swell that meanders across an otherwise flat valley."
Moreover, Mackauf maintained that other growers have been farming in the valley for years.
Joe Schilling, deputy city attorney in charge of land use, said he would decide within 10 days whether or not to file charges. If convicted of the misdemeanor violation, Ukegawa Brothers representatives could face a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"It appears there was some major disturbance of the stream bed in there prior to their staking the area for planting," Schilling said. "One concern is that if there is planting in or near the creek, it could cause pesticides to be washed down the waterway."
The McGonigle Creek episode represents the latest in a string of problems that have plagued Ukegawa Brothers since it began farming in Carmel Valley back in 1984.
The Carlsbad-based company, one of the largest tomato growers in Southern California, has been the target of protests from valley residents who say its sizable farming operation has destroyed the peaceful ambiance of the valley, which stretches about eight miles inland from the southern edge of Del Mar.
In particular, residents of Del Mar Mesa, a neighborhood that overlooks the company's crops, fear they may become sick from pesticides used by the growers and contend that burglaries increase when hundreds of field workers employed by the Ukegawas flood the area.
Residents of the valley, which is sprinkled with nurseries and horse ranches, say the Ukegawa Brothers have ignored their pleas for cooperation. Mackauf, meanwhile, says he has "gone the extra distance" to address the residents' concerns and insists the two parties can coexist peacefully.
In April of this year, another chapter in the conflict unfolded when the company allegedly violated a law requiring growers to obtain permits to farm land that has been out of cultivation for more than five years.
The city ordinance--passed after a feud between the Ukegawas and Del Mar Mesa residents in 1984--requires an environmental review to determine whether agriculture threatens any endangered plant or animal species or water sources in the area.
Mackauf said he believed all of the acreage under cultivation by the Ukegawas had been farmed in the previous five years. Schilling, however, decided that the company had improperly graded a 160-acre parcel without a permit. An infraction complaint against the farmers will be filed on that charge, a misdemeanor that carries a $250 penalty.
Meanwhile, Mackauf said that if the stream bed has been improperly disturbed, his company is prepared to make an effort to repair any damage.