CARLSBAD – After more than a year of wrestling over land use and zoning definitions, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company will continue to offer many of its recreational activities, including face painting, stage performances, free games and inflatable bouncy castles for seasonal purposes.
Jimmy Ukegawa, owner of the Carlsbad Strawberry Company, a popular pick-your-own strawberry and squash farm, won the unanimous support of the Carlsbad Planning Commission on Sept. 21 after appealing the city’s recent finding that some of the farm’s newest attractions these were not allowed under the country’s current zoning and required a special permit.
At least 40 people attended the meeting and nearly 100 letters of support for Ukegawa were presented to the city by residents from across North County. In a written submission, Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, described the Carlsbad Strawberry Company as “one of San Diego’s finest examples of agritourism.”
“Please do not condition this farm to make improvements that deprive the local community of this valuable community resource,” Gbeh wrote on behalf of the farming organization.
Ukegawa filed the complaint with the Planning Commission after nearly 13 months of negotiating with city officials about what activities would be permitted on the popular agricultural site along Cannon Road and Interstate 5.
Talks between Ukegawa and city planners ignited after the city reported receiving a single complaint about the farm from a nearby homeowner.
“What we built was a family-friendly (agricultural) environment where adults and children could play safely,” Ukegawa told the commission. “We are not a fairground or carnival. I was told many times by staff that there were many letters of complaint. We asked the staff three times to see the letters. We had to make a FOIA request and there were no letters. There was a call against us.”
Pushing for less use of the farmland, the city suggested Ukegawa either eliminate “faire”-type activities — face painting, stage performances, and inflatable bouncy castles — or apply for a conditional use permit.
Because “recreational facilities” are not defined in the municipal code, the city applied “active and passive recreation” under “open spaces” to determine stage and musical performances, inflatable bouncy castles, alcohol sales and consumption, face painting, mechanical bull riding, food trucks, and – vendors, as well as “high-pressure cannons that shoot apples at targets” are not allowed.
Urban planner Eric Lardy, who visited the site, said agritourism is not allowed in a public service area and requires a conditional use permit.
“Some of the uses are intensive and the relationship to agriculture is unclear,” Lardy said, acknowledging “there were no specific complaints or accidents related to activities on the site.”
If a conditional use permit is required, Ukegawa said he will be responsible for improving roads and intersections at Cannon Road and Paseo Del Norte, as well as installing a left-turn lane and a new sidewalk. The estimated cost of upgrading and building — at least $3 million — would put the farm out of business, according to Ukegawa.
Mike Howes, an adviser to the farm, said it made no sense for Ukegawa to apply for a conditional use permit, likely a two-year process, especially when San Diego Gas & Electric, owner of the land, can sell the package and close the Carlsbad strawberry fields at any time . Additionally, Howes said SDG&E would never sign an approval.
Howes insisted that farming was the primary function in the strawberry fields and that the other recreational attractions were secondary to supplement revenue and costs. Additionally, the current zoning allows for the “by rights” concept, which they believe allows the tenant to expand an operation without concessions or permits.
“I wonder why we’re here tonight,” Howes told the commission, noting that Ukegawa is the last unsubsidized farmer on the Oxnard border. “The urban area is the only area in the city that legally allows passive and active uses. It is used in addition to agriculture. None of that is there if strawberries aren’t there or pumpkins aren’t there.”
Strawberry Fields supporters questioned the city’s motives for initiating a 13-month saga in 2021 with Ukegawa being named Carlsbad’s Citizen of the Year. Residents also questioned how a single phone call could create a strong resonance in the city.
Lisa Rodman, executive director of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, said if the Carlsbad Strawberry Company went out of business, the foundation would soon follow. Rodman said her organization gets most of its funding from the fields, including $200,000 in contributions over the past two years.
At one point during the meeting, staff and commissioners ventured deep into the weeds of legal terminology and land use definition, causing the audience to audibly jeer as they discussed the purpose and use of a shade structure on the farm.
“Shadows,” shouted members of the audience.
Further confusion arose after Commissioner Joseph Stine struggled to communicate what activities Ukegawa wanted to continue on the farm, leading Ukegawa and Howes to wonder if they were asking for the right permits.
Additionally, images of the usages in question provided by Ukegawa were disallowed by Mike Strong, the city’s assistant community development director. But just minutes later, the commission referred to the photos for clarity.
When the dust had settled, Commissioner Peter Merz and Stine admitted that the employees were “technically right”. However, they found that because of the structure of state laws and local regulations, the city has flexibility when making land-use regulations based on recreational activities.
Commissioner Kevin Sabellico expressed concern about the extent of the inflatable bouncy castles but was persuaded to allow Strawberry Fields to continue offering the controversial activity.
“Let’s err on the side of liberty in this one case,” Sabellico said.
Commissioner Carolyn Luna said she had never seen a letter from the Farm Bureau during her planning career.
“This is the one part where the state of California and the federal government are letting local people decide,” Luna said. “This is one of the few forms of planning law that offers us a reasonable platform. We just can’t keep up. It’s always a catch-up game.”