by Joe Naiman
Two Ramona residents — Dave Harbour and Beth Edwards — weighed in at the county meeting where planning commissioners recommended moving ahead with a plan to promote more agriculture in the region.
The county proposes streamlining regulations for small agricultural operations in unincorporated areas such as Ramona. If approved by county supervisors, changes likely won’t take effect for two to three years.
Zoning Ordinance amendments and an environmental impact report could take 24 to 30 months. Once they review the documents, planning commissioners will send their recommendation to the supervisors.
“We really appreciate the county moving forward with this,” San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson said at the commissioners’ March meeting.
Commission recommendations for the supervisors are to find that the development of the program is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review, to direct county staff to develop the program within 30 months, to appropriate $525,000 of 2014-15 general fund money to develop the program, and to amend the tiered winery ordinance to add land with S92 General Rural zoning to properties eligible for on-site wine sales and tasting rooms.
The program likely will utilize a tiered ordinance as occurred with two previous county initiatives: a four-tiered winery ordinance and a tiered equine ordinance.
Microbreweries, cheesemaking, beekeeping, bed and breakfasts, host homes, agricultural homestays, packing and processing for market, horticultural sales, animal number limits, roadside sales of agricultural products, agricultural tourism, farm-to-table, and educational agricultural activities are among enterprises considered for change.
“Agriculture is an important industry,” said Carl Stiehl, project manager for the county Department of Planning and Development Services. “The agriculture promotion program is intended to expand opportunities for agricultural operation.”
Unincorporated San Diego County had one winery tasting room before the adoption of the tiered winery ordinance in 2010 and now has more than 20.
“It is really turning out to be an exciting thing,” said Commissioner Peder Norby, noting that availability of tasting rooms helps local vineyards and reduces travel for the general public. “We do not have to go to Temecula or Paso (Robles). We’re very excited to see the success of that.”
Harbour, who owns 20 acres and a you-pick farm in Ramona, hopes to add craft distilling to the options.
“It’s an offering that I’d like to offer at my farm,” he said. “Currently there’s no administrative process that allows it.”
Harbour noted that he is allowed to distill fuel and brandy but not other types of spirits.
“I have the ability to grow most of the items I need to do it,” he said.
The tiered winery ordinance only applies to properties with A70 Limited Agriculture or A72 General Agriculture zoning and not to properties with S92 zoning. Approximately 27 percent of land under the county’s jurisdiction has S92 zoning.
“That would expand the footprint down south,” Planning Commissioner Bryan Woods said of making S92 land eligible for the tiered winery ordinance.
An S92 zone is a residential and agricultural zone intended to provide controls for land constrained by rugged terrain, desert, watersheds, fire or erosion risk, dependency on groundwater for a water supply, or other environmental constraints.
“The areas out in the far backcountry are heavily groundwater-dependent,” said Commissioner Michael Beck. “I’m wondering if the analysis is going to be able to identify some sustainability thresholds in respect to groundwater.”
Edwards Vineyard and Cellars is part of a 64-acre farm in the Ballena Valley area of Ramona. Beth Edwards expressed support for adding S92 land to the tiered winery ordinance.
“It’s already zoned to grow any crop there,” she said. “The water use is minimal for opening it up to the public.”
Edwards told commissioners that the lawns of the horse ranches in Ballena Valley probably consume the most water in her area.
“We need to get a handle on where the water goes. That’s a non-agricultural use,” she said.
Norby expects the groundwater analysis to address each community.
“We know that we have some areas that are really tight on water,” he said. “Some are flush and some are really tight, and we want the analysis to include that.”
Different crops utilize various amounts of water, said Beck.
“It seems like it’s going to be interesting to get down to different types of crops,” he said. “It will be pretty interesting to see how that’s reconciled.”
The commissioners opted not to include properties with rural residential zoning in the analysis.
“I’m happy that they passed it but very disappointed that they weren’t willing to look at the rural residential,” Larson said.
Larson noted that he was only asking for a review of including the rural residential areas.
“These are decisions just to study it and look at it,” he said. “...We have a lot of farms in San Diego County that operate under rural residential. We think there might be an opportunity for some minor tweaking, some expansion.”