Ag Committee Urges Council To Incubate New Options – July 20, 2011

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

ARCATA – The Open Space and Ag Committee last week asked the City Council to consider new options for the 23-acre Gilardoni property on the Arcata Bottom. The site had been intended for use as a goat dairy by Cypress Grove Chevre (CGC) until the company canceled the project after strong opposition by neighbors.

The council will take up the matter at its meeting tonight. The Open Space and Ag Committee made two motions. The first was to have the council explore some form of acquisition or easement designation to preserve the property for land-based agricultural use, preferably as an “ag incubator.” That could be something similar to the Foodworks facility in Aldergrove Industrial Park, which has spawned a number of successful food businesses, but in this case, with farming as the focus.

The other motion urged county planners to distinguish between “land-based” agriculture which involves cultivating soil, and “industrial agriculture” such as CGC’s proposed goat dairy.

The Monday, July 11 Open Space & Ag meeting didn’t have a quorum until two members straggled in during the first half-hour. (It remains two members short of a full committee, and is looking to recruit new members.)

Regarding possible City acquisition of the Gilardoni property, Environmental Services Director Mark Andre wasn’t optimistic. “At the staff level, we don’t have any idea how to fund a purchase and maintain it,” he said. “Typically, for [property zoned] Ag Exclusive, funding is almost impossible to get.”

That, he said, is because the land is in little danger of being developed for uses other than ag, and it has little habitat value to protect. “The City would fight tooth and nail if the county tried to rezone that to residential,” Andre said.

But, he said, some form of protection for the land is “not impossible.” “Easement would be more achievable than fee title acquisition,” he said.

Member Steve Lovett wondered whether CGC was still interested in installing the goat dairy there. Committee Vice Chair Lisa Brown contacted the owners’ realtor, who said she would find out.

“That’s really gorgeous soil, really prime and suited to an incubator project,” she said. “It’s a gorgeous piece of property and it’s going to be developed unless we take action.”

Lovett pointed out that the City Council has endorsed the “western greenbelt” concept, and Andre said the City has mailed letters to relevant property owners.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Lovett said. He suggested that fundraising might be possible to raise acquisition funds, as was done with the Sunny Brae Forest.

Foster Avenue resident Carol McFarland reviewed the recent controversy and reiterated her concerns about the goat dairy project, which include runoff and drainage, odor, biohazards and waste. She said the project lacked appropriate oversight and regulation, and that CGC was “looking for creative ways to circumvent the process.”

McFarland said that if neighbors who opposed the CGC project were aware of the greenbelt concept, “many would jump on it immediately” with support.

Andre said there are several ways to accomplish a greenbelt, including purchase, zoning, easements and deed restrictions.

Committee Chair Emily Sinkhorn said the “animal density” – 1,400 goats on 23 acres – was what inspired concerns about the CGC plan. “I feel like there’s a lot of different views on what constitutes industrial agriculture,” Sinkhorn said. “It would be good to have a baseline.”

Brown agreed, stating that the county needs to create a distinction between land-based agricultural enterprises or more “factory oriented” ag which includes large numbers of  animals.

Member Uri Driscoll said that the problem with the CGC project is its proximity to the City. He said that given its estimated $3 million investment, CGC would try and maximize its return from the property.

“What could fit in there that would make the money required?” he wondered.

“That’s what makes this a prime candidate for acquisition,” Brown said. She said there is a lot that could be done with 23 acres.

“This is a problem parcel,” she said. “There’s not too many people who want a huge, three-acre barn in their backyard.

Sinkhorn said she saw value in both sides of the argument. “It’s kind of tricky,” she said.

She said the controversy “could have gone differently.” CGC didn’t have to unveil its proposal, she said, as the project was both outside city limits and principally permitted for the zoning. But CGC was “community minded enough to hold a meeting” and pull out under pressure. With “another company just down the street, it might not have gone the same way,” she said. “I just want to acknowledge that.”

Brown said she wanted a commitment by the City to protect sensitive lands on its borders. “That’s what western greenbelt was all about,” chimed Lovett. But, he added, “Do we want the City to own all the ag land?”

“The problem pieces,” Brown suggested.

Andre said he has heard criticism of public ownership of ag land.

“What if Cypress Grove built the barn on their site and pastured on Gilardoni site?” Brown wondered. “Clearly we all want Cypress Grove to stay.”

She suggested that the company might purchase the property after all, then let the City create an easement that would preserve it for animal grazing only.

McFarland voiced another list of concerns about the project, including “bazillions of gallons” of water use and soils that aren’t appropriate for a leach field that had been planned.

Referring to CGC as “Emmi,” its Switzerland-based parent corporation, she said that a Conditional Use Permit process would allow the community to hear details and properly express concerns.

Lovett wondered what form of sustainable ag would be cost-effective on a parcel whose purchase price he guessed as being $600,000. “It almost has to be industrial,” he said.

“That’s the crux of the problem,” Brown said. “The scale was a shock to the community.”

Sinkhorn said the single public meeting on the topic – the raucous unveiling at Bloomfield School in early June – was “not the most productive type of discourse.” She suggested having a “community conversation and see what kinds of agriculture Arcata can support.”

“It’s ironic that Sun Valley gets a green light and they pump a lot of chemicals out there,” Driscoll said.

Brown said the core problem is that the county doesn’t distinguish between different types of agriculture.

Andre said it should. “I think that’s totally appropriate,” he said.

Summing up, Brown advocated taking the initiative on the Gilardoni property.

“That’s really gorgeous soil, really prime and suited to an incubator project,” she said. “It’s a gorgeous piece of property and it’s going to be developed unless we take action.”

She said the county is “getting tired” of supporting the greenbelt concept for Arcata’s western edge without some substantive action by the City.

Lovett then moved to  encourage the City Council to look at options for protecting the parcel, including purchase, resale or maintain ownership. Brown seconded the motion.

Lovett then offered a second motion to have the county distinguish between industrial and land-based ag in urban planning areas.

Joking, he ruled out any possibility of initiating Humboldt’s most popular form of agriculture on the site: cannabis cultivation.

“I don’t know why Cypress Grove doesn’t feed the goats a little extra [cannabis]” Driscoll said.

“Then they’d never shut up,” Brown said.

The owners’ view

Gilardoni sisters Marla Daniels and Rayelle Niederbrach grew up on the dairy farm that is now CGC. They own the property and are now residents of Anderson in Shasta County.

Since the goat dairy project’s demise, they have leased the land back to the Mason family for cattle grazing. But they remain bitter about the outcome and aftermath of the goat dairy controversy.

Daniels said no one from the City of Arcata or the citizen-members of the Open Space and Ag Committee had notified her that uses of her property were being discussed in City-sponsored public meetings.

I hate people dictating to me what we need to do with our property. If it’s ag land, it’s ag land.”

“It just irritates you that they do what they want with other people’s property without telling you,” Daniels said. “I hate people dictating to me what we need to do with our property. If it’s ag land, it’s ag land.”

She blamed “narrow-minded” neighbors for killing a job-creating project.

“I feel bad for the cheese people,” she said. “They went to a lot of trouble.

“It makes me sick,” Niederbrach said. “I’m real upset and totally disappointed.”

Niederbrach said CGC had potential impacts to neighbors “well taken care of. They had everything thought out.”

“They would have been the best neighbors ever,” Daniels said of CGC. “It’s so sad, but you know, you just have to give it up or it eats you up.”

Confirming Brown’s worst fears, the sisters said they would like to try again to have the property rezoned to residential use as their mother Olga had unsuccessfully attempted, but that task might fall to the property’s heirs.

“I’m sure we could find someone to buy it then,” Niederbrach said.

Looking forward

UC Farm Advisor Deborah Giraud said she was confident that CGC would find a suitable location for its goat dairy. She said there are five commercial goat ranches in Humboldt with a combined goat population of about 2,000.

She said she understood CGC’s frustrations with relying on outside suppliers for its goat milk, and the difficulty in enlarging the supply.

“It’s a very challenging business, to produce goat milk,” Giraud said. “Very capital intensive. That’s what’s exciting about this. They [CGC] can put the capital into producing a first class dairy.”

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