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Supervisors reject call for buffer zones on farmland

Ventura County board says most complaints are within city limits.

June 06, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Farmers may need help keeping their land in production once development encroaches, but forcing builders to create wide buffer zones between farms and new homes isn't the solution, Ventura County supervisors decided Tuesday.

On a 3-2 vote, the board majority rejected a proposed law that would have mandated "farmland buffers" whenever a new development is built adjacent to farming operations.

Such zones would have created a 300-foot open strip between farms and new construction. The barrier would have been reduced to 150 feet if the developer planted and maintained a vegetative barrier, such as a stand of trees.

The ordinance was proposed by Supervisor Linda Parks of Thousand Oaks and was intended to quell fights over noise, odors and pesticide use that emerge when new homes are built close to working farms.

But the three supervisors who rejected it said such face-offs occur primarily within cities because that's where the county's residential growth is taking place. Cropland in unincorporated areas has relatively little development because of the county's growth-control laws.

"The cities are where the action needs to be," said Supervisor John Flynn before casting a "no" vote, along with Supervisors Kathy Long and Peter Foy.

They were backed by a dozen farmers and ranchers who showed up to protest the proposal. Several told supervisors that they preferred the county's current policy of requesting buffers on a case-by-case basis.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said lawyer Lindsey Nielson, representing landholders who would have been affected by the change.

Other speakers worried about effects down the road, such as making it harder for farmers who plan to subdivide their property.

Mary McGrath, whose family has farmed in Ventura County for more than 100 years, said the county's good intentions could easily backfire.

"It seems like every time someone wants to help a farmer, it costs me money," McGrath told supervisors.

Their fears could not be allayed, even after Parks reminded farmers that the buffer requirement and costs would fall on the home builder, not the farmer. Last-minute proposed revisions to the ordinance, which would have exempted parcels that are at least 40 acres, also didn't change any minds.

"Now is not the time to rush a flawed document into a full-fledged law," said Bob Pinkerton, who farms citrus and avocados near Santa Paula.

Parks and Supervisor Steve Bennett, who joined her in supporting the ordinance, said their intent was to help farmers keep land in production. The law would have affected about 88,000 acres of open space and agricultural land outside city limits.

Parks said the county's current strategy isn't working because a policy does not have the teeth of an ordinance. Over the years, developers have not been required to provide buffers, she said. On a recent tour of farm properties, Parks said, she saw no evidence of buffers.

"The policy isn't working if you can't go out and visually see" the buffer zones, she said.

Bennett noted that most agricultural land is in unincorporated territory and urged his colleagues to lead by example and pass the law.

Only then could the board put pressure on cities to follow suit, he said.

"We don't have much credibility to ask the cities to pass a law if we don't ourselves," he said.

Over the years, neighbors have frequently squabbled with nearby farms over pesticide applications and odors. But most of the problems have taken place within city limits.

In 2000, a Ventura citrus rancher was prosecuted by the district attorney's environmental protection unit for allegedly allowing pesticides to drift onto a nearby elementary school.

He settled the case by agreeing to change his spraying schedule and paying $25,000 in penalties and restitution.

In another Ventura case, a strawberry grower abandoned efforts to plant strawberries on his 87-acre field after nearby residents were allegedly sickened by an application of methyl bromide.

The highly toxic pesticide is now banned.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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