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Proposed garden may be on the right path to approval

ENCINITAS —The proponents of a proposed community garden finally appear to have what they have wanted for five years — a path to approval.

City planners laid out a process which would allow the nonprofit Community Garden Committee to gain the agriculture designation it has sought which would allow it to bypass at least some of the red tape it has encountered since 2009, when the council unanimously endorsed the garden plan. The process would begin at the planning commission, which would determine how the project should be treated under the city code.

The City Council unanimously voted to have staff get the item on the planning commission’s agenda.

Councilwoman Teresa Barth brought the item before the council Wednesday to see if the council and staff could find a way to fast-track approval of the proposed garden, which would be on a plot of land owned by the Encinitas Union School District.

“I felt if we brought it to council and had a discussion with staff and the community garden group, we could figure out what stumbling blocks there have been in the process,” Barth said. “I’m not looking to blame anyone, I am looking to find solutions.

“Hopefully we can get a clear understanding of what needs to be done to help the organization get its community garden up and running,” Barth said.

Garden proponents and city staff have been at odds over how the proposal should be addressed under the municipal code, which does not specifically mention community gardens. Staff believes it should be treated as a roadside stand, because the permitting process would allow it to vet the impacts the garden could have, such as traffic, odor and event noise. A minor use permit, which would be required for a roadside stand, costs $1,600 and would take 4-5 months to process.

“A number of things could be a part of the garden … need to be analyzed,” said Jeff Murphy, the city’s planning and building director. “The use permit is that mechanism.”

Supporters of the project believe the garden should be treated as an agricultural use, the definition of which in the city code includes other similar uses such as 4-H operations and local farms.

“While it doesn’t list it as a specific use, the reasonable interpretation would be to link community garden with other ag uses,” Elizabeth Taylor said. “I think it is a pretty common sense decision that community garden is an agricultural use.”

Several of the council members sided with the garden supporters.

“This is pretty tortured,” Vice Mayor Tony Kranz said of the process to date. “If we have to get that interpretation from the planning commission, then so be it, but this is ag.”

If the Planning Commission does give the garden an agricultural designation, the group would still need to apply for a coastal development permit, either on its own, or in connection with the school district’s coastal plan, Murphy said.

Before all of that happens, however, city officials said the proponents need to submit an application for the project.

Barth later asked staff of the possibility of the city waiving the fees for the garden group.