Encinitas relaxes farming rules

Raising bees, selling produce from a residential stand and starting a commercial farm just got easier in Encinitas.

The Encinitas City Council on May 11 voted 3-2 to approve an agriculture ordinance after months of debate over the role of farming in the city’s increasingly suburban environment.

Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear said the ordinance enables residents to buy more locally sourced fruits and vegetables, bolstering access to fresh produce and benefitting the environment.

“It’s not just part of our sentimental past that we’re connecting to, I think it’s also very much part of our present,” said Blakespear, who was on a subcommittee that drafted the ordinance.

The ordinance slashes the cost and amount of paperwork required to launch a small commercial farm, replacing the current $1,600 minor-use permit with a $250 agriculture permit. And residents don’t need a permit to put up a farm stand on their property and sell homegrown produce, as long as the stand is no more than 120 square feet and isn’t manned more than 12 hours a week.

Mirroring new San Diego County beekeeping rules, the ordinance also allows up to two hives in residential zones without a permit, provided they’re at least 25 feet from roads and property lines — and 35 feet of homes. City code previously only let homeowners keep bees in very low-density areas.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Councilman Mark Muir voted against the motion. They liked the idea of a streamlined agriculture permit, but took issue with the decreased bee buffer and farm stand rules.

Muir said newbies can now buy beekeeping kits in stores like Costco, but many don’t know best practices, potentially exposing their neighbors to swarms. He added that as a retired firefighter, he witnessed how bee stings send those who are allergic into anaphylactic shock.

Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer said although she’s allergic to bees and has ended up in the hospital because of a sting, she doesn’t share his concerns. Even if the ordinance doesn’t pass, bees are part of life, she added. “They’re there, whether we regulate and manage their use, or not,” Shaffer said.

Councilman Tony Kranz, who was also on the subcommittee, said county rules require beekeepers to register as such and own docile domestic bees. He added bee pollination is critical for farming, and the ordinance would help counter the trend of bee populations dying off.

Gaspar said there’s a risk that some will neglect their hives, upping the chance that bees become unruly and attack. She also said that residential produce stands could be a source of neighborhood conflict and visually unappealing.

Beekeeper James McDonald and the two other public speakers voiced support for the ordinance. McDonald said San Diego County and local groups are making a concerted effort to teach proper beekeeping.

“Really the bottom line is education on how to keep your bees docile,” McDonald said. McDonald added more backyard beekeeping means additional domestic bees, reducing the number of Africanized bees, known for swarming.

A chorus of residents nearly three years ago urged the council to overhaul the city’s decades-old agriculture rules to ease permitting and encourage farming on smaller plots. The ordinance, which has been in the works for more than two years, hit several roadblocks along the way.

Notably, the subcommittee wanted to relax livestock setbacks — the distance chicken coops and goat pens must be kept from neighboring homes. However, the Encinitas Planning Commission last fall said that would result in more neighbors having to deal with noise and foul smells. In response to those and other concerns, the commission held several meetings to comb through individual parts of the ordinance.

Because of community pushback, the subcommittee ultimately opted to stick with current livestock setbacks. Those require, for instance, at least a 35-foot buffer for raising up to 10 chickens, a distance that means only those with larger backyards can keep chickens without a city permit.

Blakespear and Kranz at the May 11 meeting said they were happy to narrow the scope of the ordinance, because their main goal is to ease permitting for upstart farms.

Kranz said the ordinance in some cases could lead landowners to choose farming over development. He noted his neighbor is interested in starting a commercial farm on a 2-acre property, and the neighbor is more likely to move forward now given that there’s less red tape.

Another part of the ordinance speeds up permitting for new community gardens, a reaction to the Encinitas Community Garden on Quail Gardens Drive taking five years to debut because of an unclear and costly process.

Council’s motion included direction to staff to amend the city’s grading ordinance with farming in mind. The agriculture ordinance will come back to the council in the next few weeks for final approval.

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