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Contra Costa eyes more recreational uses for agriculture land

By February 14, 2020 No Comments
Contra Costa County is working on revisions to its agriculture land use policies that would make it easier for owners of smaller parcels to operate ag-tourism types of businesses. (Photo by Sam Richards/Bay City News Foundation)

Though some specifics are still being debated, a burgeoning plan to update agricultural land use policy in Contra Costa County to make it easier for ag tourism, farm-to-table restaurants and other emerging commercial uses is getting support from farmers and others looking to do more than simply grow crops and graze cattle.

The county Board of Supervisors this month accepted a report from the county’s Department of Conservation and Development with various recommendations for reforming and updating ag land use policies to “improve both economic vitality and sustainability.”

The report also recommends that the Board of Supervisors update Contra Costa’s winery ordinance and other rules to allow large “farm dinner” events, various new types of lodging accommodations, including bed-and-breakfast businesses, farm stays for up to 90 days and camping/yurts/little houses on wheels.

The report also addresses issues like illegal garbage dumping on ag lands, “rural blight” from properties strewn with debris and/or in extreme disrepair, a possible noise ordinance and other situations resulting from encroaching development in the county’s more rural reaches.

“This (report) isn’t perfect, but it’s going in a great direction,” said Supervisor Diane Burgis of Oakley.

Her East County district has most of the county’s farmland, though significant acreage also exists west and south of Martinez.

“It’s very important that we protect the farmland, and also give our farmers an opportunity … to take advantage of their unique place,” Burgis said.

This plan, said John Kopchik, the county’s director of conservation and development, represents another phase of that protection.

Further steps needed

While the 1990 establishment of an “urban limit line” was key to keeping at least 65 percent of Contra Costa County as ag, parks or open space, Kopchick told the supervisors further steps are needed to help ensure the ongoing sustainability and economic vitality of those preserved lands beyond the basic corn, cattle and U-pick orchards.

The report has been developed after almost two years of public meetings, a dozen of them, mostly in the rural Knightsen area of East Contra Costa. Those meetings attracted as many as 70 people each, offering suggestions on how to make ag land more economically viable, and how changes in land use rules could help make it happen.

Several public speakers at this month’s Board of Supervisors meeting, including representatives of the environmental advocacy groups Save Mount Diablo and Greenbelt Alliance, told the supervisors they support the basic plan.

Some had a few specific bones to pick; the most-mentioned one was a 40-acre minimum parcel size for some of the suggested new uses.

Many areas have been subdivided into lots as small as 10 acres over the years, with an eye to development.

Rebecca Courchesne, whose family operates Frog Hollow Farm on 10 acres near Brentwood, said a suggested 40-acre minimum to host a farm-to-table restaurant is impractical, given a preponderance of 10-acre parcels in the area and the high cost of land.

“Having small parcels that are viable … the farm-to-table restaurant is a vital part of that,” Courchesne told the supervisors. “The 10-acre parcels are ideal for beginning young farmers.”

Unaffordable expansion

Barbara Frantz, of Tess’ Community Farm Kitchen near Discovery Bay, told the supervisors she wants to reopen a farm-to-table restaurant she operated years ago. She has a 10-acre parcel and can’t afford to expand.

“That section, as written, doesn’t meet the needs of the supervisors or of the farmers,” said Frantz, who suggested a limit on the number of farm-to-table cafes.

John Viano, president of the Contra Costa County Farm Bureau and an owner of Viano Vineyards in Martinez, said the plan has come a long way in two years, but that issues like parcel size, structure placement on parcels to provide the best possible economics and avoiding actions “that take away the rural effect” still need to be worked out.

“With a little talking, I think we’ll have something we can all appreciate,” Viano said.