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Bedlam in paradise: Marilyn Goode says that the area around her Sonoma Valley home is fraught with noise from vineyard development.

Down on the Farm

Suburbanites and farmers clash over Sonoma County's new right-to-farm ordinance. Now the issue is heading for the courts

By Tara Treasurefield

MARILYN GOODE used to delight in listening to birdsong every morning. "Now, there's an unbelievable din in the morning," she says. The source of all the noise? Vineyard development. "At 6 a.m., it's bedlam here," says Goode, whose family has lived in the Sonoma Valley for 60 years. "They're putting metal stakes in the ground with some kind of machine--rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. It sounds like a war zone.

"We've been encroached upon."

But wait. Who's encroaching upon whom? The new right-to-farm ordinance, approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last year, protects agriculture from residents, not the other way around--disturbing news for a growing number of suburbanites concerned about pesticide use and other agricultural practices.

Pete Parkinson, director of planning at the county Permit Resource and Management Department, says the ordinance makes it clear that "legal and properly conducted agricultural operations on agricultural land will not be considered a nuisance under the Sonoma County Code" and "ensures that people are informed of the consequences of living in a right-to-farm county."

The ordinance warns that anyone who lives on or uses property near an agricultural operation "may at times be subject to--without limitation--noise, odors, fumes, dust, smoke, insects, operation of machinery during any time of day or night, storage and disposal of manure, and ground or aerial application of fertilizers, soil amendments, seeds, and pesticides."

Surprisingly, the environmental community has split over the ordinance's provisions.

For instance, Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, says, "I look at the new right-to-farm ordinance as the agricultural community flexing its muscles. The subtext is that if called by a constituent with a complaint about how agricultural activities are affecting their life or their health, four of the five supervisors [west county Supervisor Mike Reilly voted against the ordinance] will side with agricultural operators. That's really what this ordinance means."

On the other hand, west county organic farmer Shepherd Bliss supports the right-to-farm ordinance. "Some people have gotten so mad at the wine industry that they're mad at farmers in general," he says. "The impact of some urban environmentalists is going to be to run off small family farms."

THE RIGHT-TO-FARM ordinance specifically protects three zones: land-intensive agricultural (LIA), land-extensive agricultural (LEA), and diverse agricultural (DA). Under the ordinance, owners of property within 300 feet of an LIA, LEA, or DA zone who require a use permit must record a declaration acknowledging the right-to-farm standards; this is a binding declaration that runs with the property in perpetuity.

Also, potential home buyers must be notified of the right to-farm protections if the property is within 300 feet of an LIA, LEA, or DA zone. All property owners in the unincorporated areas, including those who don't live within 300 feet of an LIA, LEA, or DA zone, receive notification of the right to farm with their annual tax bill.

According to Parkinson, this is because "sights and sounds of agriculture can travel more than 300 feet."

West county resident Alan Morgan (a pseudonym) worries about the effects that pesticides drifting from neighboring farms will have on his children. "We don't have any control over the chemicals they put into the environment around our home," says Morgan, who has received threats over his complaints to neighboring grape growers.

"We can smell the poison and see the drift coming onto our property."

Morgan says that the Sonoma County Agricultural Commission seems more concerned about protecting agricultural interests than his family's health. "Why, when I make a call, can't I get someone to come out? The right-to-farm ordinance is very bad."

But Parkinson says, "A common misconception about the right-to-farm ordinance is that it somehow changes the way pesticide application is done; that's regulated by the state and the agricultural commissioner. The right-to-farm ordinance provides no protection to any farmer who applies pesticides illegally or improperly."

Green says, "If someone can demonstrate in a legal sense that they have been damaged and there's harm to their life, liberty, or property, the law says quite clearly that they have the right to sue for redress of those grievances in court." Green says that a court in the Midwest recently ruled against a similar right-to-farm ordinance because it "illegally stripped people of their right to seek redress for grievances."

In fact, Ann Maurice of the Sebastopol-based Ad Hoc Committee for Clean Water has filed suit against the county. "We believe that the differences [between the new right-to-farm ordinance and the one the board rescinded] are significant and will have serious adverse impacts," she says."

A major concern is the disclosure notice to all residents of the county that they should be prepared to accept, without limitation, inconveniences or discomforts associated with agricultural operations.

The case goes to court in August.

But Nick Frey, director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, offers an alternative to legal action. "If you have a problem with a grape grower, talk to him first, and if that doesn't work, call us. We'll try to mediate some kind of discussion and enhance communications."

But critics of the right-to-farm ordinance point out that the changing nature of the county's agricultural economy--including the recent introduction of industrial-scale vineyard operations--is altering the way that farming affects residents.

Marilyn Goode agrees that communicating with growers can help preserve the land she loves, but she misses what has been lost. "For the last 30 to 40 years, we've been primarily dairy and grazing land," she says.

"There hasn't been intensive agriculture around me for the 60 years that we've been here. Years ago, they didn't use this kind of heavy equipment. Nor did they have the lethal poisons they use now. We had chickens, turkey farms.

"Turkeys are pretty quiet."

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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