ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council rendered a split decision in the case of dueling appeals over whether an Encinitas farm surrounded by homes could continue its farming and ancillary operations.
The Council unanimously voted to uphold an earlier staff decision that allows for the Coral Tree Farm to continue its farming operations without a permit, but requires farm owner Laurel Mehl to apply for a permit for other agricultural-related activities, such as community gardens and agricultural tours and classes.
The staff decision upheld by council also prohibits other uses not related to the farming that occurred at the farm, such as painting classes, yoga instruction, Reiki healing and “Sunday Suppers on the Farm.”
But the Council left the door open to revisit some of the agricultural related uses that require a permit, as a comprehensive overhaul on its existing rules related to agriculture — the framework of which is expected to make it the City Council by mid-October — might allow some of those activities to proceed without a permit.
Council members came to the compromise after a charged discussion that spanned nearly four hours, during which supporters pleaded with the Council to stand up for one of the few remaining vestiges of the city’s agricultural heritage, while neighbors on Park Lane urged the Council to shut the operations down based on the fact that Mehl was not using the land for farming for more than 20 years, thus forfeiting her rights to resume farming.
“We are in a point of transition in our community and we know it, but we have to apply today’s rules for what is happening today, and we can amend it should we change tomorrow,” Councilwoman Teresa Barth said. “We can’t presume what is happening in the future and apply it today.
“We have come to a compromise for the moment and we are moving in the direction of really embracing urban agriculture … that it is a critical part not only of our tradition, but our future, but we have to respect the laws that exist at the moment and move forward with changing those,” Barth said.
Coral Tree grows heirloom vegetables and tropical fruits off of Requeza Avenue and Park Lane. The owner has contended that farming on the land has occurred continuously since 1958.
The Council was in the position of hearing a rare dual appeal of Planning Director Jeff Murphy’s decision, which stemmed from a neighbor’s complaint to code enforcement about the property in late 2013, when neighbors in the adjacent Park Lane Estates cited traffic and parking issues associated with the activities.
On one side, Coral Tree, represented by attorney and City Council candidate Catherine Blakespear, implored the Council to allow all of the farm’s activities to continue without the minor-use permit, the conditions of which she called onerous.
Blakespear said one of the conditions staff mentioned to her in their discussions was that Mehl would have to construct a bathroom that meets the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements on site, potentially a $50,000 expense.
“I think it can be tempting from a public policy standpoint to kind of wipe your hands of this and say, ‘staff can deal with it, it’s OK to get a minor use permit,’” Blakespear said. “Minor-use permits are not minor, and not only are they not minor, they are discretionary.
“We are requesting that you recognize that implicit in grandfathering agriculture, there are going to be some amount of impacts,” she said. “Second, we are requesting that you strike this arbitrary list of things that are taking place on farms across America.”
The neighbors, spearheaded by Jodie Paxton, urged the Council to look beyond the community support of the farm’s activities and base its decision on the rules. They presented evidence, including loan documents in which Mehl signed that said no agriculture was occurring on the property, and neighbor testimony that the land was fallow when their homes, Park Lane Estates, were built in the early 2000s.
They said things started to change around 2009, when they started the first vestiges of farming. By the time they filed a complaint with code enforcement in 2013, they said activities on the farm had swelled to the point where dozens of cars crowded their cul-de-sac, endangering their children and taking up street parking.
“This is not about organic farming or urban agriculture, this discussion is not about how nice it is to visit Coral Tree Farms,” Paxton said. “Please, keep to the point of the outstanding issue, specifically that this is a commercial business operating without permits…
“Our request is simple: Enforce the code,” Paxton said.
The neighbors provided historical data that suggests the land, which was a longtime avocado grove, had not been used for agricultural use since the mid-1980s, when the trees succumbed to rot and were pulled out.
Neighbors said that the Mehl family’s later subdivision of the property into residential lots — a decision, which they said, Mehl herself signed off — further suggests that they had no intent on maintaining the land for agriculture use.
“The intent was to abandon agriculture,” neighbor Brian Crouch said. “I know this because I came to Park Lane in 2002 to purchase that exact property. I instead bought one of the homes. At that time, it was grassland just like it was in 1992. There was no farm.”
An audience member would later read a letter from Mehl that stated that Mehl signed the documents because her mother was gravely ill at the time, and that the family did not profit from the subdivision.
Forty-five people signed up to speak on the appeals, several of them Park Lane Estates residents, while many others spoke in support of the farm and of protecting the remnants of the city’s urban agriculture heritage.
“It is necessary to leave a legacy of value… for my daughter and the community,” said Brian Siebert, a local photographer who said his family deals with traffic generated by Ocean Knoll Elementary every day, but does not complain. “I would like to ask the honorable council, what legacy do you want to leave?”
Richard Schoebel, who immediately followed Siebert, said the difference between the school and the farm was that the school pre-existed the neighbors. This case, he believes, is the converse.
“When folks purchased their homes, they purchased them in a development subdivided for single family homes,” Schoebel said. “And then a farm sprung up.”
Several other speakers, including two political candidates, also weighed in on the issue. Julie Graboi said the council should not approve the farm’s request due to a registered sex offender living within walking distance of the farm. Sheila Cameron, who is running for mayor, said that two council members — later identified as Barth and Lisa Shaffer — should recuse themselves because they have financially supported Blakespear’s campaign.
Both Barth and Shaffer acknowledged their campaign contributions, but said that they issue at hand was not their support of Blakespear, but a matter of the city’s laws and how they applied to the farm.
Following the prolonged public testimony and council deliberation, both sides nodded in agreement as the council crafted its compromise.
Later, Blakespear would express her mixed reaction to the decision in an email to supporters.
“They specifically authorized Coral Tree Farm to continue farming and doing her CSA or vegetable box program. This was a victory. Certain activities, like yoga and “Sunday suppers” continue to be prohibited outright. This was a disappointment,” Blakespear wrote.