First gen farmers

Photo by Tony Kukulich

Autumn Brooks, executive director at First Generation Farmers, was hard at work as they hosted the first of their monthly volunteer nights on their farm in Knightsen, Calif., Thursday May 30, 2019. Approximately 15 people showed up to help care for the farm's animals. The next volunteer night is planned for June 27. (Tony Kukulich/The Press)

The Contra Costa Board of Supervisors is growing plans to revise the area’s land-use policies to increase agricultural sustainability and economic vitality.

County leaders recently released 18 related recommendations, including a number of new agricultural land-use policy initiatives, which sprouted from a series of public meetings that dug into the county’s agriculture future, current obstacles to a healthier agricultural economy and agritourism opportunities and constraints.

“This isn’t perfect, but it’s going in a great direction,” said District 3 Supervisor Diane Burgis, who carried on the endeavor first launched by former District 3 Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho in 2016. “I have gotten a lot of feedback from people who participated throughout the whole process that we are going in the right direction.”

Just a handful of the proposed county agricultural area recommendations include allowing farm-to-table restaurants; bed and breakfast establishments; short-term rentals; farm stays; and large events. Other suggestions include adding equestrian and bike trails between farms, improving agricultural promotion signage and ramping up efforts to address illegal dumping.

The majority of East Contra Costa’s agricultural lands are located east of Brentwood in the county’s designated agricultural core. Other major agricultural areas include the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Tassajara Valley, Briones, Morgan Territory, Las Trampas and the surrounding plain of East County.

The specifics of the proposed regulations are still materializing, but county officials and agricultural leaders agree that the suggestions are a good first step.

“We have come a long way in the past couple of years,” said John Viano, president of the Contra Costa Farm Bureau and chairman of the Contra Costa Winegrowers Association. “A little tweaking, and I think we might have something that we can all appreciate.”

Farming advocates noted key sticking points that still needed to be addressed: including the minimum required parcel size for farm-to-table restaurants; the exact placement of buildings to prevent infringement upon agricultural growing operations; and how to prevent urban elements, such as sidewalks, bike lanes and unnecessary traffic lights, from ruining the area’s rural character.

The recommendations call for farm-to-table restaurants to be on parcels ranging from 10 to 40 acres in addition to other preliminary requirements, such as that 75% of the business’s fruits and vegetables be grown in the county but it must produce at least half from its own land.

John Kopchik, the county’s director of conservation and development, said various factors must be weighed in the parcel size requirement, including impact on neighbors; maintaining farm integrity; and stress on ground water and septic systems from increased use.

However, a handful of prospective restaurateurs noted that their businesses could only survive on small parcels, such as 10 acres.

“Requiring us to have 10 acres and then requiring us to purchase another 30 acres or entering into contracts has no rational basis for the purpose the (board of supervisors) is trying to achieve,” said Barbara Frantz, owner of Tess’ Community Farm Kitchen on Balfour Road, who previously operated a farm-to-table café in the ag core, before closing it to comply with county regulations.

Brentwood City Councilmember Karen Rarey expressed support of farmers with small parcels, noting that in the agricultural core, where the majority of agricultural land uses are being proposed, 49% of farms are under 10 acres, and 76% are under 20 acres.

“I thought the whole point of making these land-use changes was to help farmers, especially the struggling farmers on smaller parcels, helping them become sustainable by providing them with another revenue source,” she said.

Burgis, however, noted that some small parcels are currently being manipulated for nonfarming purposes, something the process should try to avoid.

“What we are seeing in East County is an increase in property value, because there are people who are buying these smaller parcels and turning them into what some people call ‘mega mansions,’” she said. “So what we are trying to do is preserve it as farm land. If someone wants to get into farming on those small parcels, that is a great thing. We just don’t want people to buy a piece of property and say they are a farm-to-table restaurant but not be a farmer.”

The plan also paves the way for a variety of other unique experiences, including bed and breakfasts offering short-term stays in new or modified buildings; farm stays boasting a farm experience with lodging and meals for up to five groups at a time; short-term yurts (or little houses) allowed to usher in an outdoors experience while minimizing permanent land disturbance; and allowing farmers to host dinners for paying guests.

County staff are expected to continue mulling over unrefined aspects of the plan, working on the development of the required policies and zoning amendments needed to carry out the future changes and crafting an overall work plan and timeline for evaluating and implementing the recommendations.

To view the complete preliminary plans, visit https://bit.ly/2vs4OYx.

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