February 6, 2002
RURAL RESIDENTS VS. RANCHERS
Clash in the Country
Houses and farms are bumping up against each other in suburbia, putting homeowners and farmers at odds
By Lois Pearlman ARGUS-COURIER STAFF
Just a little over a year ago Lori and Chris Baker closed the deal
on their new Thompson Lane country home.
They knew there was a mushroom farm nearby that sometimes
permeates the neighborhood with the rank odor of decomposing stable straw.
But the farm was under order by the county to remove the offending
compost operations to another location by November, 2000.
"We never would have purchased this property had the mushroom farm not
been under this order to relocate," they wrote in a letter to county planner
However, to the consternation of the Bakers and dozens of other residents
who live close enough to the mushroom farm to catch a whiff, the county
gave the Petaluma Mushroom Farm another year to relocate its compost
The neighborhood rose up in resistance, collected 100 signatures on a
petition and demanded that the county reconsider. It was, after all, the
second time the mushroom farm had received an extension on its deadline
since the county first told the company to move the compost in 1999.
The residents of Thompson Lane and nearby Magnolia Avenue said they
couldn't even invite their friends over for a barbecue in the summertime
because the compost stench was overpowering.
And there were other problems, too. The San Francisco Regional Water
Quality Control Board found that the mushroom farm was sending
wastewater laced with pesticides and nitrogen into Marin Creek, which runs
alongside the property.
Neighbors also complained about trucks carting bedding straw and
mushrooms along the narrow country road, and the noise from equipment in
the growing rooms.
For its part, the mushroom farm, owned by former stockbroker Dave Cerini,
has purchased two properties -- one on Middle Two Rock Road and a
former organic farm on Roblar Road -- to relocate the composting and build
a second state-of-the-art mushroom farm.
The Middle Two Rock property was nixed by neighbors concerned about
traffic. Then the same neighbors directed the mushroom farm to an available
89-acre site on Roblar Road near the town of Bloomfield.
The county granted the mushroom farm a use permit to build on the site over
the objections of people in Bloomfield.
County supervisors considering the Thompson Lane residents' appeal two
weeks ago agreed that both sides had made some good points and decided
to split the difference. They pulled back the December, 2002 extension to
In casting his vote, south county Supervisor Mike Kerns said this was a
classic example of the rural residents vs. farmers struggle that is heating up
around the county.
"It's a constant battle," Kerns said in an interview. "People move into a rural
area because they enjoy that environment, but we have a lot of on-going
agricultural operations in Sonoma County, and of course there are impacts.
We continually run into situations where people want to do something with
their property of an agricultural nature and other people complain about it."
And it's likely to get worse as more houses go up on the rural fringes of the
cities and traditional low tech types of farming, like dairy ranching, give way
to more profitable ventures like wineries and kennels.
One of the bloodiest battlefields in the war is at the edge of suburbia, where
two-acre rural residential parcels bump up against bigger parcels zoned
agricultural and rural residential.
Sonoma County is a "right to farm" county, with policies that generally favor
agricultural use over residential rights. But this rural residential/agriculture
zoning is the exception to the rule.
"In general in the county's general plan, agriculture and rural residential is
treated more like residential," said Sonoma County's planning manager
That's the kind of zoning attached to the mushroom farm's seven-acre
property. The designation carries with it several intrinsic uses, but other uses,
including mushroom farming, require permits.
That's where the county and the neighbors have some control, according to
The permit process requires public hearings and noticing of adjacent
neighbors. Anyone who isn't satisfied with the outcome can appeal to the
board of supervisors or file a lawsuit.
That's what the Bloomfield Rural Alliance did when supervisors OK'd the
Roblar Road property for a mushroom farm.
Although the site is surrounded by farmland and appears to be better suited
to a large agricultural enterprise than Thompson Lane, the Bloomfield
opponents still think it's an unhappy choice. Alliance spokesperson Meg
Shores said the members are concerned about odors, accidental discharge
of wastewater to Stemple Creek, and the possibility that it could change the
character of the 150-year-old Bloomfield community.
"It claims to be agricultural but it's much more of an industrial enterprise.
None of the ranches require a 72-employee parking lot or blowing systems
going 24 hours a day. It would take 10,000 dairy cows to produce the
amount of ammonia fumes they're going to produce on two acres.
"It's not a residential vs. agriculture issue, it's rural vs. industrial There's going
to be a 250,000 square foot complex under one roof," Shores said.
But mushroom farm director Duncan Soldner said the Bloomfield residents
are worried about nothing. The plans call for a modern facility similar to the
mushroom farms in Europe.
Features will include an aerated floor compost system that blows air into the
compost to eliminate the smell, and a roof to keep out the rain and decrease
Attorney and former county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, who represents
the mushroom farm, said residents living in the rural areas should accept that
agriculture is a part of the scene and it isn't always pleasant.
"It really gets down to a very basic question of when you get in an area that's
outside the city limits or not an identified small town. How are you going to
manage the fact that you have a good agricultural economy and the
tremendous amount of collateral benefits, tourism, green belts, jobs?
"Most people who live in rural areas realize that agriculture has impacts so
they don't complain about them. In the rural areas you should expect
agricultural activity. If you don't want to live around that buy a house
somewhere else," Koenigshofer said.
But the battle between agriculture and rural residents doesn't always come to
blows. Sometimes neighboring interests are able to reach a compromise
without lawyers and hearings.
A couple of years ago parents at Old Adobe Elementary School on Adobe
Road worried that pesticides from vineyards on both sides of the school
were making their children sick. Children, the experts say, are more
susceptible to pesticide toxicity, especially if they have respiratory diseases
Through meetings among concerned parents, school officials, and the owners
of one of the vineyards, Armando and Pedro Ceja, the district was able to
secure a partial solution. The Cejas agreed to limit spraying to weekends and
District superintendent Patty Raney said it is not a perfect arrangement --
some parents would like the owners to use only organic sprays -- but it has
resolved the issue with the Cejas.
Ron Herreria, who owns the vineyard on the south side of the school, has
refused to work with the school, saying his pesticide applications are minimal
and not a danger to the children.
"I would not say the parents at Old Adobe School are being hysterical, but
have any tests been done to determine if there is any reason for the alarm
about pesticide use in area vineyards?" he asked at the time.