Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Smelly mushroom farm ruling

November 23, 1999
By Peter Golis, Editorial Director

Lee Van Giesen raised the right concern when she looked over the problems associated with the Petaluma Mushroom Farm on Thompson Lane last week. "I never like to reward someone for breaking a rule," said Van Giesen, a member of the Board of Zoning Adjustments.

But that's exactly what the board proceeded to do when it voted 4-0 with one member abstaining to allow the west Petaluma farm, which has shown little evidence of being trustworthy, to expand its work force by 68 percent

The ruling leaves residential neighbors of the farm understandably frustrated. They were hoping the board would hold the owner of the farm, David Cerinl, to his existing use permit, which allows a maximum of 50 employees on the site.

Instead, the board rewarded the farm - which inspectors in April found had 116 employees on its books - with permission to expand by 34 employees.

To make matters worse, the board didn't even discuss the flagrant permit violations or ask what would happen if Cerini was forced to cut back to the required 50 employees. The board decided to limit the farm to 84 employees - not the 120 Cerini was seeking - based not on what was best for the 6.70-acre site and the area but on the capacity of the farm's sewer capacity.

That's a poor way to make land-use decisions, by the size of a septic tank.

In the end, this sends a poor message to those operators of agricultural use permits who are dutifully abiding by their permits. Are they just suckers?

The Petaluma Mushroom Farm, in operation since 1973, supplies mushrooms to grocery chains and pizza restaurants throughout Northern California. Yet it has a history of county code violations and problems with neighbors. Neighbors have raised concerns about the farm's odor, noise and truck traffic since 1983, when it was granted its existing use permit.

In September, the farm settled a water pollution complaint for $15,000 which may also have helped resolve some of the odor problems from the farm. Cerini is now under court order to move some open-air composting mounds on the site to a 97-acre ranch he owns on Two Rock Road.

It would be easy to characterize this as a right-to-farm issue, with residents of newly created residential developments complaining about their agricultural neighbors who have been there for generations. It's not.

This is more of a right-to-expand-unlawful-ly issue. Or a right-to-violate-a-use-permit

Those who choose to live near agricultural lands need to understand that noise and odor problems come with the territory. At the same time, farm owners need to recognize their responsibilities in abiding by use permits and keeping the peace.

In this case, neither side was well-served.

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