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Ag grading is still confusing 

Tentative was the word when SLO County supervisors tackled the county’s agricultural grading rules on Jan. 25. Their vote, meant to clarify a thorny issue, only seemed to further confuse local farmers and ranchers.

County Environmental Specialist Murry Wilson said the existing rules on agricultural grading—what triggers the need for a permit, what’s exempt from a permit, and how to punish people who fail to get a permit—“can be confusing to say the least.”

Though agricultural grading was the focus of the Jan. 25 meeting, it wasn’t really supposed to be. Under state mandate, county officials have to amend county grading ordinances for “post-construction stormwater discharges” by March 22. That type of grading centers on urban construction projects.

Agricultural grading revisions aren’t under the same mandates but were tied with the changes because most local grading violations come about when someone falsely claims an ag exemption and grades illegally.

“Agricultural grading is our weakest link
on the enforcement side,” said county planner
Michael Conger.

Specifically, the proposed changes would require some form of documentation (possibly a permit) of any grading over 50 cubic yards. Vegetation clearing over half an acre would require a county review.

Despite the changes, many attendees still wondered if and when ag work would be exempt. As county officials assured that ag wouldn’t be burdened any more than under existing rules, Charlie Whitney of the Santa Margarita Area Advisory Council angrily banged his fist on a railing in the back of the Board of Supervisors Chambers.

“That’s two different answers,” he whispered to a woman sitting in front of him. When Conger claimed there would be no economic impact to the ag community, Whitney muttered a single word: “Bullshit.”

Outside, speaking to a reporter, he said, “I’m sitting here listening, and first he says the premise of this county-initiated ordinance for grading is because of these violations and then he says we don’t have accurate data on the number of violations.”

The room was packed with farmers and ranchers who argued that a few “bad apples” had somehow brought about sweeping regulations for an ag community that generally complies with grading rules.

“Frankly, I’m wearing my small business hat and I just don’t want to see any more government in my face,” Supervisor Katcho Achadjian said. He was the only supervisor to vote no on two tentative motions.

Supervisors tentatively approved the state-mandated urban stormwater ordinance, minus the proposed ag revisions. They also tentatively approved the ag grading ordinance but delayed a final decision to March 2. Before the item comes back, county planners will lay out real-world examples of what the changes will actually require of the ag community.

“Just to be clear, this is tentative,” Supervisor Frank Mecham told the crowd. “This doesn’t mean that everybody is warm and fuzzy about this yet.”

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