VC COLAB is representing Agricultural Stakeholders in a revision of this lengthy and complicated document that will control biological interpretations of projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Projects can include barns, new or updated farm facilities, conditional use permits, lot line adjustments and lot splits. In July of 2010, the Board of Supervisors voted to allow a six month delay in adoption of the proposed Biology ISAG to consider issues of agricultural stakeholders.
In November of 2010, VC COLAB hired biological consultants and a prominant CEQA attorney to review the 32 page document for technical accuracy and unintended consequences of the policies that would affect stakeholders. On December 13th, 2010 a letter was delivered to County Planning from a consensus of agricultural stakeholders asking for dialogue in small format meetings on key issues. On December 14th, County Planning hosted the first stakeholder forum. On January 3rd, 2011 VC COLAB submitted a full red-line document with suggested changes recommended by our consultants including detailed explanations.
On January 7th, 2011 a group of six VC COLAB representatives including our two consultants met with County staff to discuss our red-line revision of the ISAG. County staff seemed genuinely appreciative of the comments which they had read and generally discussed beforehand. The meeting was scheduled by the County for two hours and we had nineteen key issues to discuss representing most of our comments in the 32 pages of the document. The top four issues were: Restrictive Covenant, Element Occurrence, Linkage/Wildlife Movement Corridors and Candidate Species leading into the discussion of Thresholds which comprised the next seven issues. The discussion was relevant and respectful and represents the beginning of establishing a mutual understanding of the issues. For our consultants it was essential to understand the basis for staff’s positions in order to find common ground with our agricultural stakeholders. We believe the meeting was beneficial to both groups; however, common ground on some of the issues will need more discussion.
A second stakeholder forum was hosted by County Planning on January 11th. In this meeting a power point presentation by County staff revealed the County’s position on several issues of contention. All of these issues were contained in our red-line document and many were in reference to a separate comment letter to the County from the Farm Bureau.
On January 21st, VC COLAB members and consultants met with staff for the second time to discuss 15 key stakeholder issues. The discussion included topics related to thresholds, terminology, habitat connectivity and restrictive covenants. We believe the dialoge was productive and beneficial to both groups and that common ground was been established on many issues. In the meeting, the County Planning Director informed us that they would make revision to the document based on all public comments they received and release the new document to the public for further comment. In addition, we were informed that we would have an additional meeting with our CEQA Attorney and County Council to discuss legal issues.
On February 10, the newly revised Biology ISAG was released by County Planning to the public via posting on their website. While staff’s revision reflects a number of improvements to the guidelines, we believe there remain major issues that need further discussion, particularly: Locally Important Species, Regional Linkage Studies, Zero Thresholds, Element Occurrences and Waters/Wetlands de facto Moratorium. In fact, the new document contains a considerable amount of new language that has not been discussed.
On February 17, VC COLAB delivered a letter to the Planning Director and the Board of Supervisor’s strongly urging the County to postpone the hearing scheduled for March 1, 2011. We believe the process should not be terminated prematurely and should be allowed to continue for a short period of time to give the public the opportunity to address the most recent proposal. Neither the Planning Division nor the Board of Supervisor’s have responded to our letter.
On February 24th, two working days before the scheduled Board Hearing, County planning released a document with changes negative to the VC COLAB positions for public review. On February 25th, VC COLAB submitted a cover letter and a new proposed revision with recommended changes and comments. Our goal has always been to work with County Staff to have a document that comports with CEQA and contains thresholds that are biologically and legally supportable. We are hoping that the Board will hear our arguments and postpone the decision at the hearing and allow the process to continue for the benefit of all County residents.
On March 1st, 2011, the Biology ISAG went to the Board of Supervisors where County Planning Staff recommended approval of a document that was deficient and would have significant impact to agricultural operations in the County. The board room was packed with over 150 farmers and ranchers, 50 of whom voiced their opposition in public testimony. The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to allow another two months for discussions with the agricultural stakeholders - a new hearing was scheduled for April 26th.
GRADING ORDINANCE REVISION – VENTURA COUNTY PUBLIC WORKS AGENCY
Phil Nelson of Public Works presented a status report on the Agricultural Grading Ordinance update at the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee (APAC) meeting on Wednesday, February 9th, 2011. Phil reported that the draft grading standards are being reviewed for public release and will be presented to APAC when they are ready. After this process is complete, Public Works will be revising the ordinance with respect to oil field grading and development. It is important that VC COLAB weigh in on these issues as well. We are soliciting members from these industries to become involved in this process ASAP.