SOAR laws are a two-edged sword

Andy Caldwell
COLAB Executive Director, guest editorialist, and radio talk show host

Cross-posted at the Ventura County Star

Years ago, voters throughout Ventura County approved the SOAR (Save
Open-space and Agricultural Resources) initiative. The ostensible
purpose of the initiative was to stave off the conversion of
agriculture-zoned properties to other uses unless the electorate
approved the conversion.

So, farmers and ranchers face a daunting challenge if they want to
convert their farmland to urban uses, but did they get anything in
return? That is to say, while SOAR protected farm fields from being
converted, did it also offer any protections to the farmers that would
enable them to stay in farming?

The apparent answer to this question is yes, as farmers and ranchers discovered at a recent

Board of Supervisors meeting.

Some 20 years ago, a group of enterprising environmentalists came up
with the idea to preserve and protect as much "undeveloped" land as
possible throughout the West Coast. Their goal was to re-wild the land,
meaning they wanted to eliminate all human uses and access, as much as
possible.

In their perfect world, there would be no farming, ranching, mining,
housing or even recreation in these wildlands. The project founders
divided the region into project areas and went to work. In Ventura
County, the wildland project is sometimes referred to as the South
Coast Missing Linkages project.

The means by which the proponents of this ideology have sought to
accomplish their goal was by use of the Endangered Species Act,
critical habitat designations, the California Environmental Quality
Act, regional water quality regulations, and a host of local and
regional land use planning tools that could serve to eliminate and
obliterate the ability of landowners to use their lands for much of
anything – including the right to grow food and raise livestock.

In essence, all these efforts have one goal and that is to wrap
landowners, including both private property owners and even government
entities that own land, such as the federal government, in as much
green tape as possible so as to preclude use of the property.

The proponents serve to portray any type of intensified land use as
a threat to the environment, despite the fact that farming and ranching
operations have actually served to preserve these very same lands and
the natural resources abounding on them.

As this plan unfolds in Ventura County, the proponents recently
discovered that SOAR may prove to be an obstacle standing in their way
to re-wild this county’s farms and ranches.

That is because the SOAR initiative prohibits the county Board of
Supervisors from implementing policy changes that serve to rezone ag
lands to other uses unless they can make specific findings, including
the finding that the land is no longer suitable to farm!

At a recent board meeting, Supervisors Steve Bennett and Linda Parks
sought to approve changing the land-use designations on most of the
county’s rural lands to a designation of "wildland habitat" and
"wildlife corridor," in effect eliminating the ability of landowners to
continue farming and ranching on their own property. Isn’t it ironic
that Bennett and Parks were huge proponents of SOAR in the first place?

Fortunately, the board majority of Supervisors Kathy Long, Peter Foy
and John C. Zaragoza recognized this effort as being deleterious to the
family farm operations that have served to maintain and preserve
Ventura County as a semi-rural county for the past 150 years.

Agriculture is a big part of our local economy and there is rich tradition associated with farming and ranching in this county.

We encourage the Board of Supervisors to continue to recognize that
SOAR implicitly and explicitly guaranteed farmers and ranchers the
ability to keep their ag operations going in exchange for giving up
their rights to convert their property to other uses without a vote of
the people.

The wildland proponents are, in essence, trying to extend the de
facto boundaries and permissible land uses of the national forests onto
private properties abutting the same.

The farmers and ranchers are, in effect, being squeezed out of
existence. They are not asking for permission to build a strip mall,
they just want to be able to raise cattle and grow crops!

It is time for Supervisors Parks and Bennett to direct their staff
to own up to their obligation to the residents and property owners in
this county under the requirements of SOAR.

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