OCEANSIDE — More than 13,000 voter signatures have been collected in support of the SOAR initiative that asks voters to decide on land use changes of open space and farmland.
Signatures were turned in to the city clerk’s office March 12, and are being verified by the San Diego Registrar of Voters. The initiative will then go to City Council to be adopted or put on the November ballot.
Morro Hills agricultural area resident Dennis Martinek, who grows macadamia nut trees but does not call himself a farmer, helped launch the initiative in October 2017. He said SOAR empowers voters to decide what changes are made to the city’s General Plan.
He said he hopes council adopts the initiative, or it goes to the ballot.
Others disagree. Commercial farmers have formed the Keep Farming in Oceanside opposition group.
A rub between the two Morro Hills groups is whether farmland is recognized as private property that supports a farming business, or seen as a community resource.
Neil Nagata is a Morro Hills farmer and core member of the Keep Farming in Oceanside group.
Nagata said there are a lot of variables involved in running a private farming operation. The business of farming necessitates the ability to implement needed changes quickly, like building hydroponic structures and other farming facilities.
“Farming isn’t just putting seeds in the ground,” Nagata said.
Farmers already face challenges as they navigate through the city approval process and city staff’s interpretations of regulations regarding business improvements.
SOAR regulations would also leave some room for interpretation and added uncertainty for farmers. Part of the initiative reads “residential development and agritourism shall be permitted provided such development does not interfere with existing agricultural operations and that the open space character of the area is preserved.”
“Interference” with existing farming and preserving the “open space character” of farmland could be subjective.
Nagata said if farmers have to wait on a vote of residents to build needed facilities, farms would fail. Farmers would also have ballot and campaigning costs to bear under new regulations.
“Farmers would have to spend $100,000 or more (for a ballot initiative) not knowing the outcome, it’s too hard to do business that way,” Nagata said.
Nagata said in addition to limiting farming operations, SOAR would also freeze agritourism progress by locking in existing General Plan and zoning designations until 2030, and not developing infrastructure to support tourism.
Martinek said the initiative’s proposed changes to the city’s General Plan do not prohibit farmers from building agriculture facilities. He said allowed farming and agritourism property improvements would continue.
He added what would not be allowed is agriculture land sales for housing developments without a local vote.
“The main thing that is limited (by SOAR) is high-density housing projects that require significant changes to roads and sewers,” Martinek said.
There are also the hard-hitting arguments between the opposing sides that large land owners oppose SOAR because they wish to sell their land to developers. And gentleman hobby farmers who benefit from supplemental income support SOAR, the farming tax break they receive and rural lifestyle they enjoy.
The Keep Farming in Oceanside group has reached out through social media to inform residents of the negative impacts SOAR would have on farming operations. The group has also collected 500 signatures from voters who rescinded their support of the initiative.
Going forward, the group is considering its options to protect the livelihood of farming.