Should farmland be dedicated to agricultural operations only or also allow for other land uses like a carnival, and if so how much? That’s the question currently on the board table for the San Mateo County Supervisors.
At a meeting last week, Supervisors voted to consider making changes to farmland zoning that would free farmers to tap into agri-tourism business.
They have been working specifically with the proprietors at Arata Farms in Half Moon Bay, which has added a giant hay-bale maze, haunted house and a sword fight arena in recent years to bring in visitors and more revenue. Arata grows pumpkins and corn but has come under scrutiny for using up more land for attractions than agriculture.
“We didn't approve or authorize an amendment to the Williamson Act contract on the Arata Pumpkin farm," said San Mateo County Board Supervisor Don Horsley. "We do have the guidelines for agri-tourism but we didn't approve or review the guidelines. Instead we voted to consider the application at a later meeting and appointed a subcommittee to review the guidelines.”
The Williamson Act offers tax breaks to farmers for keeping prime agricultural land in production. But specific uses are set by county contracts.
If approved, the new rules would allow for such uses if they’re considered compatible with agricultural operations.
The Board of Supervisors consideration to table the issue until next month’s meeting coincides with Arata landowners Lillian Arata and Gary Arata reaching a settlement last Friday over their differences of what was best for the land.
Last year, the aunt and nephew went to court over a disagreement about how the land was being used, according to the Half Moon Bay Review. Gary Arata supported the agri-tourism side of the farm while Lillian said it was inconsistent with the property’s zoning, according to the recent Review article. As part of the settlement, Gary Arata agreed to purchase the remaining 50 percent of his aunt’s share of the parcel.
Horsley doesn’t think that it is in the long-term interest of having a sustainable agriculture community if former farmland is turned into carnival type activities.
“Sustainable agriculture means that food grown locally supplies local markets with fresh food rather than trucking in food from distant locations,” he said. “So, it is good for the environment, good for reducing green house gases and good for the local economy. I might also add that farmers are good managers of the land.”
Still, Horsley acknowledges that it’s a good thing to allow other land uses for farmers in Half Moon Bay because it's very difficult to run a successful agriculture business.
“Markets and weather are unpredictable and the regulatory environment that has been imposed on farmers makes it difficult to earn a living on a family farm," Horsley said. "To be economically sustainable, some operations would like the flexibility of being able to capitalize on the growing interest on the part of the public to visit farms, especially during specific times of the years such as the months of October and December.”
At this time, however, Horsley says they need more time to consider all of the issues and ramifications of various options, but is hopeful that “the outcome will be good for the community as well as for the applicant.”