CARLSBAD — After more than a year of wrangling over land-use and zoning definitions, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company will continue offering many of its recreational activities, including face painting, stage performances, free games and inflatable bounce houses for seasonal uses.
Jimmy Ukegawa, owner of the Carlsbad Strawberry Company, a popular u-pick strawberry and pumpkin farm, won unanimous support from the Carlsbad Planning Commission on Sept. 21 after filing his appeal of the city’s recent determination that several of the farm’s latest attractions were not permitted under the land’s current zoning and required a special permit.
At least 40 people attended the meeting and nearly 100 letters of support for Ukegawa were submitted to the city from residents across North County. In one written submission, Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, described the Carlsbad Strawberry Company as “one of San Diego’s best examples of agritourism.”
“Please do not condition this farm to implement improvements that will strip the local community of this valuable community resource,” Gbeh wrote on behalf of the farming organization.
Ukegawa brought the appeal before the Planning Commission after nearly 13 months of negotiating with city officials over what activities were permissible at the popular agricultural site along Cannon Road and Interstate 5.
The conversations sparked between Ukegawa and municipal planners 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 kids can safely play,” Ukegawa told the commission. “We’re not a fairground or carnival. I was told many times by staff there were many letters of complaint. We asked staff three times to see the letters. We had to make a FOIA request, and there were no letters. There was one phone call against us.”
The city was pushing for fewer uses at the farmland, suggesting Ukegawa either eliminate “fairgrounds”-type activities — face painting, stage performances and inflatable bounce houses — or apply for a conditional use permit.
Since “recreational facilities” are not defined under the municipal code, the city applied “active and passive recreation” under “open spaces” to determine that stage and musical performances, inflatable bounce houses, alcohol sales and consumption, face painting, mechanical bull riding, food trucks and vendors, and “high-pressured cannons that shoot apples at targets” are not permitted.
City Planner Eric Lardy, who visited the site, said agritourism is not permitted in a public utility zone, requiring a conditional use permit.
“Some of the uses are intense, and the relation to agriculture is unclear,” Lardy said, acknowledging “there have been no specific complaints or accidents related to activities to the site.”
If required to obtain a conditional-use permit, Ukegawa said he would be responsible for road and intersection improvements at Cannon Road and Paseo Del Norte and installing a left-hand turn lane and new sidewalk. The estimated cost of the upgrades and construction — at least $3 million — would put the farm out of business, according to Ukegawa.
Mike Howes, a consultant for 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 parcel and shutdown the Carlsbad strawberry fields at any time. Additionally, Howes said SDG&E would never sign a permit.
Howes insisted that farming is the primary function at the strawberry fields and the other recreational attractions are ancillary to supplement revenue and costs. Additionally, the current zoning allows the concept of “by right,” which they believe allows the tenant to expand an operation without concessions or permits.
“I’m wondering why we’re here tonight,” Howes told the commission, noting Ukegawa is the last unsubsidized farmer from the border to Oxnard. “The public utility zone is the only area in the city that allows passive and active uses by right. The uses are ancillary to agriculture. None of these are there when strawberries aren’t there, or pumpkins aren’t there.”
Supporters of the strawberry fields questioned the city’s motives for initiating a 13-month saga with Ukegawa, named Carlsbad’s Citizen of the Year, in 2021. Residents also asked how a single phone call could elicit a strong response from the city.
Lisa Rodman, executive director of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, said if the Carlsbad Strawberry Company were to go out of business, the foundation would soon follow. Rodman said her organization receives 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, prompting the audience to audibly jeer as they debated the purpose and use of a shade structure at the farm.
“Shade,” members of the audience yelled.
More confusion ensued after Commissioner Joseph Stine struggled to convey which activities Ukegawa requested to continue at the farm, prompting Ukegawa and Howes to question whether they were asking for the correct permissions.
Additionally, pictures provided by Ukegawa of the uses in question were disallowed by Mike Strong, the city’s assistant community development director. But just minutes later, the commission referred back to the photos for more clarity.
When the dust settled, Commissioner Peter Merz and Stine acknowledged that the staff was “technically right.” Still, they noted that due to the structure of state laws and municipal codes, the city has flexibility when making land-use determinations based on recreational activities.
Commissioner Kevin Sabellico expressed concerns about the scale of the inflatable bounce houses but was persuaded to allow the strawberry fields to continue offering the disputed activities.
“Let’s err on the side of freedom in this one instance,” Sabellico said.
Commissioner Carolyn Luna said through her career in planning, she’d never seen a letter from the Farm Bureau.
“This is the one part where the state of California and federal government where they let the locals decide,” Luna said. “This is one of the few forms in planning law where it gives us a commonsense platform. We just can’t keep up. It’s always a catch-up game.”