CARLSBAD — The Carlsbad Strawberry Company’s iconic farmland along Interstate 5 has long been known for its tasty strawberries, pumpkin patch, corn maze and other agricultural enticements.
However, some of owner Jimmy Ukegawa’s latest attractions, including bounce houses, apple cannons, a mechanical bull, face painting and speakeasy, may not return after this Halloween season due to the city of Carlsbad’s interpretation of permitted uses for the land.
More than 13 months earlier, Ukegawa and the city began discussions over his expanded operations, which grew due to the pandemic when outdoor venues were one of the few recreational options after most businesses shut down.
But City Planner Eric Lardy said the city received a complaint about potential land use violations on Ukegawa’s plots and has reexamined permissible activities on the land.
Since then, both sides have been in a battle over “semantics,” Ukegawa said.
In July, the city conducted a zoning determination and presented its findings to Ukegawa.
The city’s letter said the strawberry fields is split into two parcels subject to different zoning designations.
“(The zoning determination) outlines what would be needed for certain uses and what certain uses are by right,” Lardy said. “The uses expanded over the last couple of years. There was a code complaint earlier this year related to the activities. Given the activities that were occurring … the operator requested an official determination of what is and isn’t allowed.”
According to Lardy, the city views some of the current activities at the strawberry fields as more appropriate for the fairgrounds.
Some of the Ukegawa’s current offerings at the fields — u-pick strawberries and pumpkins, corn maze, tractor rides — are considered “accessories” to agriculture activities, which are permitted under the “public utility” zoning designation.
The complaint was related to noise from the “speakeasy” fundraiser for the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, which was an issue for at least one resident located on the north shore of of the lagoon nearly one mile away.
Since “recreational facilities” are not defined under the municipal code, the city applied “active and passive recreation” under “open spaces” to determine that stage and musical performances, inflatable bounce houses, alcohol sales and consumption, face painting, mechanical bull riding, food trucks and vendors, and “high-pressured cannons that shoot apples at targets” are not permitted.
The city is asking Ukegawa to obtain a conditional use permit for the 48-acre parcel owned by San Diego Gas & Electric.
Ukegawa “reluctantly agreed” to give up the apple cannons, bull riding and face painting this Halloween season, but he disagrees with the city’s interpretation and has filed an appeal with the city’s Planning Commission. The commission is scheduled to discuss the issue during its Sept. 21 meeting.
Ukegawa said with the zoning also comes the concept of “by right,” which he believes allows him the ability to expand his operation without concessions or permits.
Additionally, he said a conditional permit would come with a massive cost — to pay for road and intersection improvements along Cannon Road and Paseo Del Norte, along with building out the sidewalk several hundred yards to the east. For those improvements, Ukegawa believes the property owner should be responsible.
Dozens of residents and customers have sent letters to the city in support of Ukegawa, many questioning how a single complaint could reduce his offerings.
“We’ve been negotiating since January, and now they’ve put their feet in the sand,” Ukegawa said. “The city also tried to get the farm to pay for Cannon Road improvements. We’ve been farming this land since before Cannon Road was built.”
Ukegawa’s business model has changed over the years due to competition from Mexico, including cheaper imports and lower costs for labor, water, and insurance, pushing him toward agritourism, which is defined as a working farm or ranch “for the enjoyment and education of visitors that generates supplemental income for the owner or operator,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For Ukegawa, the attractions are critical to the farm’s survival. Without them, his business, which attracts visitors from San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, would likely be on life support. During the summer, thousands of out-of-state tourists also enjoy visiting Ukegawa’s farm as the only coastal agriculture operation from the Mexican border to Oxnard.
Since 2020, much of Ukegawa’s proceeds from the mazes have earned $100,000 for the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation. Other charitable efforts include hosting the city’s two Rotary clubs’ annual Oktoberfest celebrations, a speakeasy benefitting local charities and free or discounted field trips for students and the Boys & Girls Club of Carlsbad.
Amid the pandemic, Ukegawa donated more than 500,000 pounds of food to anyone in need, no questions asked. For those efforts, Ukegawa was named Carlsbad’s Citizen of the Year and Congressman Mike Levin’s Constituent of the Month in May 2021.