Farm wins right to keep selling produce


A small farm that’s at the forefront of the urban agriculture trend can grow and sell produce without special permitting, the Encinitas Planning Department recently decided.

About three months ago, the city told Laurel Mehl, owner of Coral Tree Farm and Nursery, that she would need to apply for a minor-use permit if she wanted to continue commercial farming on the property.

Before the city’s recent decision, Mehl worried about the possibility of having to stop growing.

“A minor-use permit is a long, tough process,” she said. “And at the end of it, you can still be denied.”

However, the city reversed course after examining new evidence, stating on July 10 that Mehl has a right to sell to families and businesses like Whole Foods.

“I’m really happy they recognized we’ve been growing here for a long time and grandfathered our agriculture rights,” Mehl said when reached July 11.

She later added: “The community support has been heartwarming. I can’t express it in any other way. There has been love and hugs and people telling me it’s going to be OK.”

But the city says Mehl still needs a minor-use permit to continue educational tours and a community garden for which her 2-acre farm is known. The permit process can involve going before the Planning Commission and even City Council.

And city staff added that the farm can no longer provide cooking and yoga classes, arguing those aren’t related to agriculture.

The city began investigating the farm’s legal status after two neighbors blamed it for increased traffic in the area.

Mehl’s family has been farming there for 56 years — well before nearby homes in the neighborhood cropped up. Yet when the city incorporated in 1986, commercial farms in residential areas became “nonconforming.”

Nonconforming farms that cease selling goods for 180 days must obtain a use permit. And the city originally argued that the farm fell under that category, based on environmental records.

To prove otherwise, the city asked Mehl for tax records stretching back 25 years. However, aerial maps showing fruit trees on the land and other recent evidence ultimately persuaded the planning department that the farm has been active without a break.

A use permit runs $1,600, but there could be additional costs associated with mitigating traffic or other impacts.

Mehl noted she plans to pursue the permit to allow events with $1,600 she raised for the farm through the crowdfunding website IndieGoGo. And she’s hopeful the city will reconsider its stance on yoga and cooking classes on the farm.

“I still think the city needs to be more flexible,” Mehl said. “I’d argue there is a link between agriculture and cooking. I’d add you see community farms across the county offering cooking and things like that.”

City Planning Director Jeff Murphy said city staff determined that yoga doesn’t support agriculture on the property.

But the city did find the community garden and educational tours are an acceptable “accessory use,” though a permit is needed because they aren’t protected under the property’s grandfathered growing rights, Murphy added.

“Those accessory uses are new to the property, and so they have to get a permit for those,” Murphy said.

Catherine Blakespear, a council candidate and attorney who represents Coral Tree, called the news a “partial victory.”

Blakespear said in an email and follow-up interview that it’s gratifying to see that the city recognizes there’s been continuous farming on the property. However, she said it’s unreasonable that the farm is being asked to get a use permit for educational tours, adding they’re akin to a homeowner hosting a gathering.

If homes were built on the property, they’d result in traffic, yet wouldn’t be required to obtain such a permit, Blakespear noted.

The city is in the midst of drafting an ordinance to ease permitting requirements for backyard commercial farms, modeled after the city of San Diego. Eventually, the ordinance will go before the Encinitas council for consideration.

Mehl said she’s hopeful it balances the needs of farmers and neighbors.

“If done right, we can introduce agriculture back into people’s lives without angst,” Mehl said. “It would be a huge asset to the community.”