Supervisors tackle eye gnats with new regulations

By Joe Naiman

County supervisors are tackling eye gnat breeding at organic farms with a new ordinance.

A 4-0 vote, with Bill Horn recusing himself from the vote and discussion because he owns an organic farm, gave initial approval with adoption scheduled for Dec. 5. If approved, the ordinance would take effect Jan. 4.

“I think the ordinance we have before us today is an excellent ordinance,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

“One of our charges here is to protect the public,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. “We have a lot of people who cannot use their own property.”

Eye gnats, approximately 1/16 of an inch long, feed on protein from body fluids including the eyes, noses, and mouths of humans and animals. They are native to San Diego County and breed in organically-rich soil.

“Eye gnats are a nuisance for which we have no existing authority to address,” said Jack Miller, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH).

Approximately 350 organic farms have commercial operations in San Diego County. Complaints of eye gnats have centered on Be Wise Ranch in the San Pasqual Valley and Bornt Farms in Jacumba, according to a county report.

The supervisors directed county staff to address the eye gnat problem last year. A group consisting of San Diego County Farm Bureau leaders, organic farmers, community members, a technical expert, and county staff met five times to craft a program. The draft program and ordinance underwent a public comment period that included two community meetings.

The ordinance gives DEH authority over eye gnats as vectors, makes eye gnat intervention eligible for Vector Control Program funding, and creates an Eye Gnat Abatement Appeals Board. Abatement will be in response to complaints with priority for voluntary abatement measures and inspections to verify compliance. Regulatory orders will be issued as necessary.

The “last resort situation,” if the nuisance persists, will allow the county to restrict the types of crops grown, and abatement measures may be issued without regard to grower costs.

The county will take abatement action only after public nuisance complaints are investigated and DEH finds that a source was the predominant cause of the nuisance, reported county staff. DEH cannot base a conclusion solely on community complaints; direct observations by staff and consideration of collected data are also required.

Under the voluntary abatement portion, commercial organic farmers can work with the Farm and Home Advisor to develop and implement a voluntary plan. If the plan fails to protect the community, DEH may order mandatory specific abatement measures. In the absence of a “last resort situation,” DEH cannot order a grower to cease organic operations or cease growing particular crops, and initial orders would be limited to those economically feasible for the farmer.

The abatement measures, whether voluntary or mandatory, could include trapping eye gnats, installing barrier fences, and preventing fresh vegetation from being turned into the soil.

An Eye Gnat Abatement Appeals Board would be established. District 1 would appoint a licensed pest control advisor, districts 2 and 3 would each appoint a community at large member, and districts 4 and 5 would appoint an owner or operator of an organic farm. Ramona is in District 2.

“The ordinance before you is the very essence of fair balance,” said Robert Morriss of San Pasqual Valley.

“We knew you had to find a solution,” said San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director Eric Larson.

Larson noted that the two farms that generated complaints weren’t negligent, but the majority of organic farms in the county produce tree crops and most of the rest are in less populated areas.

“Some organic farmers are just struggling with the location,” he said.

Bonsall organic avocado farmer Rick Carey was concerned about the lack of some specifics. “It’s too open-ended from a grower’s standpoint,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to proceed if I had to mitigate the problem.”

Bornt Farms had been leasing the Jacumba property and vacated the site at the end of June 2012. The property owner allowed conventional pesticide application on July 12, and no complaints have been received since July 16, the county reported.

“The kids at school will be able to eat lunch outside and not be affected,” Jacob said.

In July 2012, Be Wise Ranch started a voluntary prevention plan that included offering free traps to neighboring residents. Data has shown a reduction in complaints from prior years of 85 percent to 95 percent.

“I’m quite proud to have been able to achieve what we have,” said Bill Brammer, who operates Be Wise Ranch.

Brammer and his staff placed 2,000 traps on Be Wise Ranch and installed 13,000 feet of three-foot-tall silt barrier. The nearby Vineyard golf course saw a 98 percent reduction from its 2010 trap collections.

“What we have here is a good approach,” Slater-Price said.

County supervisors previously created a fly abatement ordinance with an appeals board to address problems of flies which due to agricultural livestock manure.

“The fly abatement ordinance has been pretty successful. It’s worked pretty well,” Jacob said.

   
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