SOAR initiative to be opposed by Farmers form coalition

The proprietors of some of Oceanside farms have formed a coalition to oppose a ballot initiative they say would make it harder for them to sell or improve their land.
“It is essentially the commercial farmers here in South Morro Hills,” explained Michelle Castellano, a worker of Mellano and Company, which farms about 300 acres, primarily flowers and avocados, at the northwest corner of Oceanside.

“We really see SOAR as a threat that could put commercial farming from company,” said Castellano, one of about 30 members of this coalition called Keep Farming in Oceanside. “We are just trying to find that information out.”
The proposed SOAR (Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources) initiative will require some requests for zone changes to open space and agricultural land to go to Oceanside voters at a municipal election to create a decision that currently takes a simple majority of the five City Council members.

Initiative supporters say the measure would help all farmers by preserving parks ag lands and open space.
“It doesn’t work against the major farmer,” explained SOAR backer Dennis Martinek. He explained, the initiative is intended to prevent anyone who wants to change property that been used into something like a home subdivision for agriculture — to earn a profit.
Some farmers want to keep that option.
Farmers throughout coastal San Diego County have a difficult row to hoe these days because of the high prices of water and labour, from encroaching industrial, commercial and residential growth together with increasing pressure.

A big factor behind production of this Oceanside initiative, announced in October, was a development proposed for 177 acres at the Morro Hills region that is agricultural, North River Farms. The farm-themed subdivision would include a variety of paths parks, housing types, a commercial centre, a boutique resort and neighborhood gardens to be shared with residents.
City planners urged this year that the project be denied, stating it was too many homes for the roads and services in the region. The application turned down, but left open the possibility that the undertaking could come back with revisions.
The SOAR initiative takes aim on vacant land like the city’s El Corazon property elsewhere at the North River Farms project, but also at growth. The website covers over 450 acres where parks, parks, homes and businesses are all planned.
“I’m absolutely against it,” said Neil Nagata, a third-generation Oceanside farmer, president of the executive board of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, and a part of the Keep Farming in Oceanside coalition.
The initiative would just help “gentleman farmers,” he said, using a term that describes amateur farmers with small orchards or gardens, and that don’t use the property to support themselves. Those kinds of farms could be a hazard to professional operations that are big, because the operations are more likely.
“The simple truth is SOAR will hurt agriculture,” said Nagata, whose family grows blueberries, strawberries, cherimoyas and veggies. “You’ve got to conserve the farmer, not the farmland.”
Thus far, the Farm Bureau has taken no position on the initiative, but Nagata said he expects the bureau’s board of supervisors following the members match to consider all of the facts and vote on it to oppose it.
Initiative supporters say the measure gives agriculture more security than it gets out of the City Council, where three elected members could vote to construct condominiums or flats on land now growing strawberries.
Also, it will be written to assist items like wineries and coffee-tasting rooms which would fit with the agri-tourism ideas which have been discussed for Morro Hills.
The initiative has been endorsed by a number of local and regional groups, including the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of El Corazon, Preserve Calavera, the Buena Vista Audubon Society and area nonprofits.
“SOAR provides us the right to vote before a programmer is permitted to change land zoned for agriculture or open area to another land use,” says Joan Bockman, president of the Friends of El Corazon, at the group’s endorsement letter. The nonprofit formed in 2012 to help direct the creation of a park and neighborhood centers .
Between 50 and 60 volunteers have been gathering signatures to put the initiative on the ballot next year, Martinek said, and the campaign is gathering momentum.
Originally proponents announced their goal is to find the signatures of 17,500 registered voters to set the measure. Martinek said they heading to get on the ballot in November, and are changing gears.
This makes the measure one of at least three which Oceanside Republicans could watch on the ballot next November. Signatures also are being accumulated for a local initiative to legalize marijuana, and city officials have discussed the possibility of placing a half-cent town sales tax.

philip.diehl@sduniontribune.com
Twitter: @phildiehl

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