Unusual land use rules in San Diego County stonewalled a dairy manure and green waste composting project. Persistence and common sense led to start-up of the on-farm facility – a stop on the BioCycle Global Conference tour.
SAN Pasqual Valley is one of 52 communities, and the northernmost, in the City of San Diego, California. Under the state’s Government Code, local jurisdictions are given the authority to create land use policies under a “General Plan.” While smaller cities in California have a single general plan that covers the entire footprint of the jurisdiction, larger cities like San Diego – with administrative rights to about 372 square miles – commonly subdivide geography into communities. Most of these subdivided communities have their own unique land use rules and plans that establish development goals and guidelines along with the city’s municipal code.
What makes the San Pasqual Valley Plan special is that it’s one of the few communities in the City of San Diego – actually all of Southern California, in fact – that preserves the land for agriculture and open space. This is significant because most of the prime agricultural land in the region has been developed for residential and commercial use. In fact, most land use and zoning favors this type of development over farming, and combined with the high cost of real estate and irrigation water, has either driven agriculture off the most fertile land, out of the region completely or forced many farmers to grow high value crops such as ornamentals. It’s a cycle hard to fathom from a rational, sustainability-based point of view, i.e., speculative housing displacing more and more local food crops prompting importation of fruits and vegetables from thousands of miles away to supply San Diego County’s some three million residents.
DEFYING THE TREND
The preserve in San Pasqual Valley, if only a last gasp, remains in defiance against this trend and prevailing land use rules. Agricultural leases with the City of San Diego, which owns most of the land in the 14,000-acre valley, account for approximately 30 percent of its use, generating an annual gross economic value of services and products of about $30 million. Businesses include, among others, organic produce, citrus and avocado orchards, ornamental and nursery stock production, livestock grazing, horse stables and one of San Diego County’s few remaining dairy farms.
Two years before the San Pasqual Valley was designated as a preserve in 1962, Frank Konyn Sr., a Dutch immigrant from a dairy farming family in Beemster, Holland, was already milking cows and growing feed on a small parcel of land leased from the city. Konyn arrived in the U.S. without a penny in the pocket in clothes borrowed from his brother. After bouncing around a few dairies in San Diego, he saved enough money to build his own and gradually expanded. The 100-acre, 700-head farm that exists in the same location today is owned and operated by his son Frank Konyn, Jr., who purchased the business from his parents with his wife Stacy in 2002. Low milk prices, high feed costs and increasing expenses related to handling manure led Konyn to explore composting. “I wanted to diversify my farm’s revenue and manage our cow manure in an environmentally friendly manner,” he explains. “I decided to get a permit, and invited my nephew, Kevin McLin, to partner with me on owning and operating the venture, San Pasqual Valley Soils, LLC (SPVS).”
BATTLING A LAND USE CODE
Obtaining a composting permit from the state of California was pretty straightforward. The farm applied for the Notification Tier, allowing them up to 12,500 cubic yards of material on site at any one time, among other provisions. The local land use rules, however, were murky. After presenting the project plan to the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department, the initial determination was that a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) would be required.
While City representatives were confused themselves about why what seemed like a purely agricultural activity proposed to be conducted in an agricultural preserve required such extensive permitting, the first interpretation of the municipal code appeared to indicate a CUP was necessary. “Could cost up to $100,000,” one of the planners said, shaking his head. “Sure sounds like it should be permitted without one in that zone.” In fact, every planner and regulatory agent who reviewed the plan (nine in total) agreed, and even the Development Services Department (DSD) director was miffed, and vowed to look into it more thoroughly.
Unfortunately, the language in the code indicated composting was not an appropriate use of farmland. It appeared to be a losing battle. Composting wasn’t specified as an agricultural activity. What came out of the cow’s udders fell in perfect compliance with the rules, and could be captured, processed and sold. It was agriculture. What came out of the back end, however, wasn’t. It became a battle of semantics, nuances and interpretations. Interestingly, this was not a case of the dairy fighting the Development Services Department. They were both on the same side. It was the two parties fighting language in a municipal code that didn’t know the difference between an eggplant and an egg, nor a horse or a horseradish. Konyn and myself, the composting consultant to SPVS, fought for the project scope and the right to establish the operation without a CUP. The DSD was cooperative and understanding.
A multitude of effective arguments were cited in favor of the proposed use without the extensive permitting being required: 1) Composting is a best management practice for handling manure, recognized as such by the US EPA, CalRecycle, California Water Resources Control Board, and the University of California Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. 2) Three similar composting operations exist in the City of San Diego on agriculturally-zoned land, none of which had to go through the CUP process to receive their composting permits. 3) The proposed operation’s finished product has a multitude of environmental benefits including helping neighboring businesses better manage their organic residuals, improving cropland soil and allowing farmers to minimize use of polluting pesticides and fertilizers and conserve water. 4) The dairy’s proposed activity meets both the spirit and definitions of appropriate accessory and additional uses defined in the San Diego Municipal Code.
After nearly ten months and half a dozen meetings after first submitting the project scope to the city, Konyn called to say, “Forget it. We’ll do something else.” That same day, SPVS received a determination from DSD: Permission granted for composting, as it’s a use by right on an agriculturally zoned parcel. The judgment came from the city attorney’s office, and was a victory for composting and farming in San Diego County. The Notification permit from the state took less than a week, and operations began.
Occupying about 12 acres of the dairy’s existing leasehold, the composting facility, independently owned and operated as San Pasqual Valley Soils, LLC, processes approximately 13,000 cubic yards a year of cow manure generated by the Konyn Dairy (under local land use rules, the facility can only accept manure from its own dairy) and 43,000 cubic yards of yard trimmings. Products sold include a certified organic (under OMRI) soil amendment, two grades of mulch and topsoil. Customers include landscapers, nurseries and organic farms. The facility also donates compost to a foster home with an organic farm located nearby in San Pasqual Valley.
A simple, outdoor open windrow technology is used and piles are aerated with a PTO-driven HCL turner. Dairy manure is collected weekly from dairy operations and transported to the composting facility in dump trucks. Yard trimmings are accepted from local haulers and landscapers for a tipping fee, contract ground on an as-needed basis, and used as a bulking agent for manure or composted separately. Recipe mixes are achieved by blending materials with a front-end loader and turning with the HCL. Finished products are contract-screened on an as-needed basis as well. Water for moisture and dust control is pumped from a well. Despite its independence, the facility benefits from staff, equipment and other resources available from and shared by the dairy.
“I believe this operation is an asset to the San Pasqual Valley and San Diego County,” says Kevin McLin, co-owner/manager of the facility. “True to the goals of the preserve, what we’re doing will protect the water quality of the aquifer, preserve open space, create valuable soil amendments that growers in the region can benefit from, and help maintain the valley’s agricultural character. Farming is key to the region’s sustainability and food supply, and we’re glad to be able to contribute to that.”