Santa Barbara County staff held a public hearing on the environmental analysis of an ordinance on hoop structures. I sat through many a hearing that impacted agriculture and was surprised with the low turnout at this meeting. Albeit, it was not a Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors hearing, but it was an opportunity for the public to speak.

What is interesting about the process is that the county’s objective in preparing amendments to the zoning ordinance is to “simplify and streamline the permit process for hoop and shade structures to allow farmers more flexibility and efficient agricultural operations in support of the county’s agricultural economy.”

The debate at the Board of Supervisors early last year that led up to these changes was whether hoop structures were subject to land-use permits to begin with. The Building Department has always exempted hoop structures from requiring building permits. Readily-removable, plastic-covered hoop structures without in-ground footings or foundations were initially exempt up to 12 feet in height until the board increased the height to 20 feet as exempt from building permits in April 2016.

However, the Planning Department claimed the zoning ordinance was silent on hoop structures, leaving the only option to require the installation of hoop structures to be subject to the same permit requirements as greenhouses.

I disagree that the ordinance did not allow hoop structures. The ordinance may have been silent because hoop and shade structures have historically been considered agricultural equipment. This concept is consistent with state Revenue and Taxation Code, which exempts certain “farm equipment and machinery” from California sales and use tax. Single-purpose agricultural and horticultural structures, such as hoop structures, specifically designed to be farm equipment and machinery are exempt.

The EIR characterizes hoop structures as “causing significant, unavoidable (impacts) to the visual character of certain areas, as seen from public viewing locations, where crop protection structures are located adjacent to urban areas or existing developed rural neighborhoods. The potential expansion of crop protection structures could further alter existing agricultural landscapes by further reducing public views of cultivated fields and crops to views dominated by crop protection structures.”

The EIR says farming equipment in agricultural areas is harmful to residents and visitors in the county. While I do not disagree that farmers have a responsibility to be good neighbors and stewards of the land, I find it difficult that they need to be regulated to address views from public viewing places to protect visitors or passersby. The EIR does not protect private views, so specific incidents with neighbors concerned with their views from their private residents are not mitigated. It is only views from public roadways identified as an impact.

I enjoy living in an agricultural area and the bountiful food that is produced here in hoop structures or otherwise. It does not bother me to see hoop structures being used to produce more with less. Less land, less water, less labor, with more regulations, more limitations and more costs. I hope we can hold the line in our zoning policies and respect our Agricultural Element aimed to protect agricultural lands. Somehow, I don’t think an expensive process to evaluate visual impacts of agriculture in agriculture is a benefit to our agricultural economy.

Spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to prepare an EIR for an ordinance amendment that only a few members of the public turned out for does not seem good for anyone in the community. In fact, three of the six members of the public were there to object to use of hoops to grow cannabis. The concern here is that all this hoopla will turn into a debate about cannabis and further restrictions and regulations may come into being in order to prevent cannabis growing in hoops.

Lisa Bodrogi is a land-use planning specialist and board member of Committee INC. She can be reached at: lisa@cuvee.me or www.cuveeconnections.net