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Ag cluster chucking?

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Do agricultural cluster subdivisions preserve agriculture as intended or merely tempt people to build homes over their farms? There’s no clear answer to that question, but county officials agree that the original intent has been lost.

After increasing public criticism, particularly following the Santa Margarita Ranch project, county planners will re-draft the ag cluster policy. The goal is essentially to preserve agricultural land in the county from being subdivided and developed.

The cluster policy gives property owners an opportunity to build tightly clustered housing developments on their land. Since it was implemented about 20 years ago, however, many ag clusters have been neither clustered nor very agricultural.

The existing ordinance gives property owners more building density—more lots—based on the presumption that they could otherwise simply divide and sell off the entire property. In other words, let them build more than is allowed on ag-zoned property, but less than if they were to rezone and subdivide. It’s a loophole that has paved the way for urban-style developments on historic agricultural lands, critics claim. The density bonus can also entice farmers and ranchers who might not otherwise develop to trade their cowboy hats for construction helmets.

SLO County supervisors voted to send the ordinance back for a rewrite to address its problems.

A few from the agriculture community attended that meeting and argued that cluster subdivisions are a necessary tool for them to stay agricultural.

John Gardner, a San Luis Obispo farmer with a proposed cluster project, said agricultural operations aren’t always enough to preserve the land. Sometimes, he said, farmers need to develop and sell part of their property in order to rotate crops.

“We think [clusters are] vital to the economic viability of the land.”

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