News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.

News and Features
July 11-18, 2007

home | metro santa cruz index | features | santa cruz | feature story

Ron Garthwaite

Photographs by Carlie Statsky
Bilked Man: Ron Garthwaite says he wasted the last 11 years trying to build his dairy in Santa Cruz County. "We'd be retired by now," he says.

O Give Me a Home

A small dairy in the Pajaro Valley seemed like a no-brainer. But in the end, Claravale's Ron Garthwaite fled the red tape of Santa Cruz County for a friendlier environment.

By Steve Hahn

Ron Garthwaite slumps against the side of his truck and looks out at what could have been. Eleven years ago he gazed upon this same piece of property in Watsonville with a simple dream. He saw a small structure where he could milk his cows, a barn where he could store them during winter storms and a field where they could roam freely. Now he stares at the few remaining heifers grazing the parched grass in front of a small storage shed, sighs, and thinks back on how his dream was slowly dismantled.

Garthwaite's farm, Claravale Dairy, is one of the last of a dying breed of all-natural dairies that doesn't process its milk or use growth hormones on its cows. His raw milk is locally distributed in natural food stores and gourmet restaurants throughout Santa Cruz County and the surrounding area, including recent expansions into Southern California. All the manure produced on his farm is sold off to nearby farmers for fertilizer. He uses no chemicals in his feed or in the milking process. Yet the local distribution network and environmentally responsible practices of his dairy, the smallest in the state, couldn't save him from what he says are the labyrinthine regulations of the Santa Cruz County Planning Department.

After two rounds of applying for permits, one in 1998 and one in 2006, Claravale Farms had spent more than a half million dollars getting its buildings up to code, declared bankruptcy, and had only an outdated use permit and a somewhat meaningless electric permit to show for its efforts.

Garthwaite and his wife, Collette Cassidy, say conditions for approval of their proposals, such as demands that the color of the roof conform to county standards and that its shape not affect runoff in a 10-year storm cycle, ended up making it economically impossible to establish their business in Santa Cruz County.

This year they gave up and decided to move to San Benito County, where the planning department took less than a month and only $20,000 to approve their proposal to build a milking parlor and a barn. The buildings they proposed, roughly the same as those planned for the Watsonville property, are now almost completed.

For Garthwaite, the experience has confirmed what he and other farmers in the Pajaro Valley have long believed: that a paucity of planners with experience in agricultural planning has led to incompetence and a tendency to follow regulations even when the rules don't logically apply to the plans on the table.

Planners, however, contend that when it comes to agriculture, there is actually much less regulation emanating from the planning department than with other types of development.

"We don't require permits for very many agricultural things at all," Assistant Planning Director Mark Deming says. "We require them for certain square footages of greenhouses and for dairy farms, only because it's a high concentration of animals with food processing components. Otherwise, farmers pretty much have a free hand. We only require setbacks of non-agriculture activities from farmland."

But Garthwaite is an exasperated man. He says the letters from county officials expressed encouragement for the idea of building his sustainable, eco-friendly dairy, even while they made it economically infeasible by so closely following the law.

"The county has something that they want," he says, frustration leaking through his calm demeanor. "There have been no complaints from neighbors, there will be no environmental drawbacks, and we have complied with every mitigation they have required. They wanted a 40-foot turnaround for fire engines and we agreed. They wanted us to widen the road and we agreed, even though these things are a huge pain for us. Even though they want our dairy here and we're cooperative, they can't push it through their own system."

Deming maintains that the need to protect the public from potential hazards associated with water runoff mixing with manure and other health issues justifies these admittedly burdensome measures.

"I'm sure there were a lot of things they had to do that they may have thought were unnecessary," says Deming. "But I'm sure they were all considered health and safety issues and requirements in the county or state code or law."

Jersey cows

Jersey Girls: The Jersey cows in Claravale's small herd produce richer milk than the regulation black-and-white Holsteins of popular imagination and most industrial dairies.

Hoofing It

Claravale Dairy's most recent move to San Benito County is only the latest chapter in the farm's semi-nomadic history. The idea for the dairy, which was based on a traditional model after industrial milk production wiped out an entire way of life in the early 20th century, originated in the head of Kenneth Peake while he was working on his family's Campbell farm. Once he was old enough to strike out on his own in 1927, Peake put his plans into action, purchasing 12 acres in Monte Sereno and a small herd of Jersey cows, which are daintier and have richer milk than the high-output black-and-white Holstein cows that supply the milk most Americans drink.

In Monte Sereno, Peake eked out a living with only a few hired hands to help him. He would wake up in the blush of dawn to care for and milk his cows, deliver the unprocessed milk to local stores and chefs himself, and enjoy the view on his property surrounded by swaths of open farmland.

Then, around the time Peake began considering retirement, the digital revolution kicked into high gear, and property prices in the area skyrocketed. Developers entered the Santa Clara Valley, for which Peake had named his farm, and began buying up farmland to build houses for the new rush of workers in the rapidly expanding Internet industry. Few farmers could resist the deep pockets of the developers, and Peake saw the land surrounding his own bought up at a quick pace. Multimillion-dollar homes soon obstructed the views he had once enjoyed.

Finally, age and the needs of retirement forced Peake to sell off his property to developers acre by acre. At his death in 1999, he had but one acre remaining.

During this process, Garthwaite, a genetics researcher at the California Academy of the Sciences and a dairy history nut, had been volunteering on the Claravale farm. Once the last acre of land was sold in Monte Sereno, he took over operations and moved the herd and equipment to an abandoned dairy operation he had leased on land owned by Monterey Bay Academy. He figured the scenic property, just off San Andreas Road, would make a fine temporary home for his herd while he developed a permanent location on 12 acres of land he'd purchased in Watsonville.

Unfortunately, that proved much more difficult than he had imagined.


Crate Expectations: Raw milk from Claravale dairy, which is neither homogenized nor pasteurized, is sold throughout Central California and as far away as Southern California.

Paper Mill

In 1997, it took only four months for Claravale Farms to receive a use permit to graze 50 cows and build a 400-square-foot milking facility, a 2,500-square-foot lofting barn (essentially a large, wall-less storage shed for hay and grain), a 1,600-square-foot barn with stalls and an irrigation pond.

But a use permit is only the first step in the process for developing land in Santa Cruz County. Next, Garthwaite and Cassidy had to apply for a building permit, which required a list of mitigations from different county departments be fulfilled before the application could be accepted.

Each mitigation came with a hidden price tag. Not only did the couple have to pay specialists to conduct studies on their land--including shelling out almost $10,000 to a soil specialist who had to be called out to the property twice because the first soil study "expired"--but with each delay in the process, there were the additional costs of rent, maintenance, property taxes and mortgages they had to pay on two properties simultaneously. For just the span of time it took to do the soil profile they paid $22,000 in these doubled-up fees.

Additionally, Garthwaite says that every time he got a new recommendation from one of the multiplicity of disjointed government agencies simultaneously regulating his business, he had to pay his architectural consultants to draw up a new plan. This, combined with the costs of maintaining two properties, cost him at least $70,000 over the last year, he says.

Then, to put the cherry on top of the money sundae, with each new form filled out to comply with a mitigation, there were fees of hundreds or even thousands of dollars to be paid to the relevant governmental agency.

According to Cassidy, "this pretty much ended up bankrupting us," and she never submitted the building permit proposal due to lack of funds.

"It's a never-ending thing," says Garthwaite. "You can't apply for a permit as a business in the county of Santa Cruz without a piece of land, but you can't just sit on the property while you go through this whole process. It just doesn't make sense as a business."

last chapter

Last Chapter: Once Garthwaite and Cassidy sell their Watsonville property, their time in Santa Cruz County will be over.

Barns and the Man

Deming denies that the planning department held up Claravale's application, saying Garthwaite and Cassidy should have acted on their use permit in 2000, before it reached its two-year expiration date.

"Most of the reviews have already been done, we already know where it's going to be located on the site, we know the size, and the technical reviews are mostly just building plans showing you're consistent with the uniform building code," he says. "We make sure the plans are consistent with the plans approved under the use permit, and then we issue the building permits."

In other words, according to Deming, who admittedly wasn't working on this specific project, by the time a use permit is issued, the applicant has already dealt with a vast majority of the paperwork and regulatory conditions.

It may not have been that straightforward in the Claravale case, though. Cassidy says that since they had run out of money, they decided instead to establish their headquarters on the Monterey Bay Academy land, work on building a solid customer base in the area, and refuel their bank account.

After the couple had built up Claravale's reputation in the county and established an extensive distribution network of customers, they decided to try for building on the Watsonville property once again in February 2006. They reasoned that, with so many mitigations and studies completed in order to receive the '98 use permit, it would be a simple matter to pick up where they had left off.

Not so. A number of the codes had changed, the two-year limit had run out on their previous use permit, and the plans had been changed substantially. This meant they had to start all over again from scratch.

Deming says a key factor is that the '06 proposal was "much larger and more intense." This proposal included facilities for grazing 60 cows, constructing a milking parlor of 2,777 square feet and a 7,000-square-foot barn, and building additional hay and composting barns.

"It was a much more elaborate layout," says Deming.

While such a jump in the scope of the operation would seem to justify a fresh look at the plans and building site, Garthwaite says just these numbers taken alone are misleading. First off, he had actually decided against building the milking parlor after the plans were drawn up, but because no government agencies were complaining about that aspect of the proposal, and since it would cost another huge wad of cash to change the plans for the umpteenth time, he decided to leave that parlor on paper even though he had no intention of building it.

Second, the additional barns were actually a requirement of the fire department, which wanted sprinkler systems running through these storage areas. After these factors are considered, Garthwaite says, "the plans were pretty much the same."

At the end of the day, what really gets under Garthwaite's skin is the fact that the land he owns is zoned for dairy production, yet the process for actually constructing a dairy is so amazingly complex as to make it pretty much impossible. Even Deming admits this is the first cow dairy proposal his department has ever seen.

"Even if we wanted to have a huge dairy operation here, it's our right," says Garthwaite. "But in the county of Santa Cruz, there are no property rights."

Garthwaite is hesitant to attribute the resistance he faced to supervisor-influenced anti-development "conspiracy theories," arguing it's more likely that ignorance on matters agricultural and architectural have permeated one of the larger county planning departments in the state.

"This is just what happens when you get a few hundred bureaucrats together," he says. "Everyone's protecting their own asses. Incompetence can really seem to be conspiracy sometimes."

Deming says no special attention--good or bad--was paid to the Claravale project, and that it had to go through the same process as other developments to make sure the law was being followed to the tee.

"What we had to do in February '06 when we got the material in from the application is to send it out to all people who have something to say about projects: environmental health, the drainage people and the fire department," explains Deming. "So we get these comments back on the plan and a lot of times they want more information, so we send a letter back to the applicant detailing the comments from the agencies, asking that they please address their comments and their needs. The applicant then submits another round of stuff to them and then we send it out to the agencies again. Apparently this went on in this application for quite a while, for about five months."

Garthwaite and other farmers, such as Farm Bureau Vice President Steve Bontadelli, believe the red tape they get trapped in when dealing with the county planning department can be partly attributed to a near-religious adherence to an ever-increasing set of codes and regulations that aren't necessarily applicable to the project at hand. For instance, Claravale was required to have wheelchair access, a paved road and soil tests twice in a two-year period. Garthwaite says these are unnecessary for a small, all-natural dairy with a minimal able-bodied workforce that ships its manure offsite almost immediately.

Deming counters that the planning department exists to enforce the laws, not to create them.

"My first reaction when I heard that a dairy has to be [disability] accessible was that it was silly, but my understanding was that part of their plan was to have kids come out on school buses, set up retail operations on the property, and basically make this opened up to the public," Deming explains. "So some of their plans may have triggered higher levels of accessibility. I mean, why would a dairy hire someone who was disabled? They couldn't do the job. But then again, that's what the law says. We're just implementing the law, even though it seems a little silly and is definitely more expensive for the permit holder."

Coded Out

So where does all this paperwork lead? According to Bontadelli, it often leads to bankruptcy for small family farms that are unable to meet the county's mitigation demands and steep fees.

"A lot of these regulations were written by people who weren't very familiar with what they were trying to regulate or what they're trying to accomplish," Bontadelli says. "Some of these can be somewhat onerous and not really achieve what the goal is. The bigger operations can have one guy in charge of this paperwork, another guy in charge of this other paperwork, but when it's the small guy, it's just the guy! There are a lot of guys who are just throwing their hands up and leaving."

Deming maintains that the conditions imposed on dairy operations in the county, such as septic requirements, fire hydrants and widened roads, may be burdensome, but they're critical to protect public health and safety.

"Those are the kind of things we have to enforce," says Deming. "You wouldn't want to have inadequate access with people working at the dairy and not be able to get fire trucks and rescue vehicles down there."

Cassidy and Garthwaite nevertheless both attribute the drop in family-owned farms in the area to what they see as over-regulation of agriculture.

"It's just this big money-making operation," says Garthwaite, his voice rising slightly. "They milk us for money, shuffling around our papers. Money, money, money! They finally push us out and then the next person is going to come onto this land, they'll do the same thing and make more money."

Whether one sees the Claravale debacle as an example of an over-reaching bureaucracy forcing a valued community asset out of the county or an example of the necessary side effects of maintaining high health, accessibility and safety standards for dairy operations, Garthwaite is just happy to be done with it and moving into his new home.

"San Benito is bigger, better, and they actually want us there," he says. "So we're not too disappointed about the move. If we'd moved to San Benito County 11 years ago, we'd be retired by now instead of starting from scratch because we've been pissing away all our money instead of using it on developing assets."

Send a letter to the editor about this story.