Case Study - City of Chula Vista Land Use and Planning
Scope of Work
Local land use rules have not kept pace with myriad California legislation and initiatives designed to divert compostables from the landfill and facilitate more environmentally and economically beneficial processing methods, such as through source reduction, food recovery and composting. Under the Healthy Food, Healthy Soils (HFHS) scope of work, the HFHS team was tasked with reviewing the zoning and land use rules addressing composting and organic resource management of two San Diego County jurisdictions (one large city and one smaller in size).
Zoning and land use rules fall short countywide, in all 19 jurisdictions, but the City of Chula Vista was selected because it has a disproportionate population of low-income individuals compared to San Diego County, and because the city's Office of Sustainability and Planning Department’s wanted to further environmentally sound initiatives in the city.
The HFHS team reviewed Chula Vista’s municipal code and general plan, conducted interviews with staff, and compiled city data relevant to composting, community gardening, and other issues related to management of recoverable food and compostable materials. The city’s existing composting and resource management efforts were also reviewed. All data was analyzed and based on findings, the recommendations that follow in this study were formulated.
Once a thriving agricultural region, billed as the “Lemon Capital of the World” in the early 1900s, and a major celery producer in the 30s and 40s, Chula Vista transformed into a bedroom community in the 60s and development shot from the coast eastward with thousands of homes in master-planned communities beginning some 20 years later. Today, with a population of more than 267,000, Chula Vista is the second largest city in San Diego County, and its agricultural heritage creeps through in the form of initiatives to promote community gardening, permitting many agricultural uses by right, and committing to “making healthy choices an easy option through convenient access to healthy food…” “The fact that the city chose to include healthy food access as part of the Healthy Chula Vista Initiative shows that community food growing opportunities are already of interest to city planners and policy makers.” (Gutierrez, Jennifer E., "From Empty Lot to Garden Plot: Urban Agriculture in Chula Vista"). The city was underway with community outreach on potential initiatives for urban agriculture at the time of this writing. City staff interviewed confirmed that a survey of vacant lots was completed and anticipated its AB 551 Urban Ag Incentive Zones, will be in effect in early 2018.
Occupying about 54 square miles, with land uses dominated by suburban residential housing and commercial shopping districts, Chula Vista is weening out larger-scale agricultural opportunities, making the urban agriculture element that much more critical to accessing healthy food. As the city continues to grow, so do residuals from its population, notably compostable materials. In 2016, Chula Vista sent a total of 182,250 tons of discarded materials to the landfill, of which:
- 73,000 tons were compostables (based on California waste characterization data)
- 28,300 tons of these compostables were food
- An additional 34,300 tons of yard trimmings were collected and sent to the landfill for alternative daily cover (ADC), with a portion processed into compost and mulch, and 80 tons of food scraps (and some residential green waste) were processed under a pilot composting program at the Otay landfill.
Existing Programs and Initiatives
Chula Vista has curbside collection of yard trimmings and a pilot program for 600 homes allowing vegetative food scraps to be put into yard trimmings containers. This material is composted at the Otay Landfill. The majority of discarded materials are disposed at the Otay Landfill, which is scheduled for closure sometime between 2025-2028, though improved recycling efforts may extend the operation for another few years. The city has acquired 30 acres of landfill space for possible development of a composting facility when the landfill closes. Technology and processing options are being explored at this time.
The city’s existing backyard composting and composting outreach serve as excellent educational tools to promote soil health and resource management. Weekly composting classes are conducted at the Living Coast Discovery Center, composting bins are available at subsidized rates for attendees, and volunteers that complete the full Master Composter course provide 30 hours of community service facilitating compost.
In 2010, the city council adopted Resolution No. 2010 043, allowing the use of city-owned vacant lands for community gardens and authorizing the city manager “to take any and all actions required to implement the creation of community gardens.” Shared composting space is required in community gardens for soil amendment production.
Healthy food access is promoted under the Healthy Chula Vista Initiative, and addresses food distribution and food waste prevention, community gardens, healthy vending policy, urban agriculture incentive zones, and livestock policy.
Under Chula Vista’s Zoning Code (Title 19), agricultural uses are permitted by right or with a conditional use permit in the Agricultural Zone. Crop and tree farming is defined as a use with incidental buildings; yet 19.16.030 requires a conditional use permit (CUP) for such buildings and requires an area no less than one acre. 19.16.030 applies in nearly every zone where agricultural uses are permitted.
19.04.062 Crop and tree farming.
“’Crop and tree farming’ means the raising for commercial purposes of any truck, field or orchard crops or wholesale nurseries or greenhouses, including necessary buildings incidental to such crop.”
19.16.030 Agricultural uses – Permitted when – Conditional use permit required when.
“Crop and tree farming, as defined herein, shall be permitted as an interim use in any zone, provided the area in which said use is located has not been subdivided or plotted so as to result in parcels of less than one acre. Any buildings, such as accessory farm buildings, packing sheds, wholesale nurseries, etc., shall be subject to a conditional use permit.”
The city’s Health and Sanitation Code (Title 8) describes certain composting activities, and when a permit is required. Composting is generally well defined and rightly differentiated as material of value from solid waste. Chula Vista’s exclusion of recyclables and compostable from garbage and solid waste definitions serves a model for the region.
“Solid waste shall not include… materials or substances having commercial value or other importance which can be salvaged for reuse, recycling, composting or resale.”
Under Title 8, the city generally allows green waste processing (composting) up to 15 cubic yards without a permit. However, the permit type and process for larger operations, or operations processing material other than green waste (such as food scraps), is not defined in the recycling (Title 8) or zoning (Title 19) codes. The composting code also includes other provisions that prescribes bin size limits at residences, and temperature monitoring for other composting.
Municipal Code Recommendations to Facilitate Healthy Soils and Sound Resource Management
- Revise zoning to enable urban agriculture on parcels smaller than one acre and facilitate AB 551 implementation.
- Add composting to the definition of agriculture, which will clarify the activity in agriculture zones. This will also allow composting as an accessory use in zones where agricultural accessory uses are permitted.
Recommended additions to existing text are inserted below in bold.
“Agriculture” means the use of the land for agricultural purposes, including farming, dairying, pasturage, agriculture, composting, horticulture, floriculture, viticulture, apiaries, animal husbandry (excluding swine); incidental to other agricultural uses; and the necessary accessory uses for storing produce; provided, however, that the operation of any such accessory use shall be secondary to that of normal uses and shall not include stockyards or the commercial feeding of garbage or offal to animals.
19.04.062 Crop and tree farming.
“Crop and tree farming” means the raising for commercial purposes of any truck, field or orchard crops or wholesale nurseries or greenhouses, including necessary composting areas and buildings incidental to such crop.
In order to maintain consistency with CalRecycle exemptions, a permit exemption for composting other than backyard residential composting, could be increased to 100 cubic yards within 750 square feet (or 100 cubic yards for in-vessel processing) with no stipulation that material be generated onsite and used onsite. While it is difficult to say whether this limit is too large for community garden or urban/semi urban agricultural sites, a site-by-site decision process (such as no-permit administrative review as per Boston, Massachusetts' Article 89, and development standards, such as screening methods, should be established while maintaining the activity must remain an accessory use.
A model ordinance would limit prescriptive measures and rely on performance based measures to give the site flexibility in its operation while also requiring that it maintain a neat, clean, and safe environment.
With performance-based regulation in place, the composting ordinance can be simplified to the following excerpt from 8.25.090 Composting, as well as 19.20.130 Performance Standards, which are the catch-alls necessary to ensure composting is properly managed while giving the city enforcement authority in the event that performance issues arise.
B. Every composting pile, bin, holding area or other such composting system shall be maintained so as to not create a public or private nuisance through visual, odor, safety and/or other means, or as prescribed in Chapter 19.66 CVMC.
19.20.130 Performance standards.
All uses in the agricultural zone may be subject to initial and continuing compliance with the performance standards in Chapter 19.66 CVMC.
For projects requiring conditional use permits, the city has two paths for approval:
- Administrative approval, granted by the Zoning Administrator pursuant to CVMC 19.14.030(A).
- Approval granted by the Zoning Administrator pursuant to CVMC 19.14.040, and with approval of an application for site plan and architectural review by the Planning Commission.
The CUP permit process for Recycling Collection Centers is well defined and tiered by facility size. Small recycling collection centers require administrative approval, while large centers require approval from the Planning Commission. Small and large recycling centers are conditionally permitted in several commercial and industrial zones.
A similar, tiered permitting approach would be well suited for composting facilities, which would rely on CalRecycle criteria for facility size, technology type, and feedstocks to determine facility tiers and placement in land use zones. The rise in in-vessel technologies provides even more opportunity for facilities that can fit in a wide variety of commercial and industrial spaces that previously might not had been considered suitable for conventional composting.
Incorporating Healthy Food, Healthy Soils in General Planning and Policies
The existing General Plan and future update provides an opportunity to integrate healthy food, healthy soils as part of the city’s sustainable and resilient community strategies. Chula Vista is already analyzing potential general plan amendments through its Healthy Chula Vista Initiative. Themes and goals are well suited to strengthen the connection between sound resource management, soil health and a healthy and sustainable community. For example:
Healthy and Sustainable Community (Theme 5):
"Chula Vista is a community committed to making healthy choices an easy option through convenient access to healthy food and a variety of recreational opportunities, the provision of safe routes and a balanced transportation system for all users, and a sustainable natural environment. The adoption of policies and programs that promote the health and well-being of all citizens is a high priority. Land use arrangements and mixes that provide easy and convenient access to transit, and other non-auto modes of travel, access to healthy food, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, opportunities for physical activity and exercise, and a sustainable environment are all integral parts of creating a healthy and sustainable Chula Vista."
Climate action planning and the upcoming closure of the Otay landfill provides opportunity for innovative solutions to recirculate resources back into the community while building the local economy. Diverting organics from landfills through food recovery efforts and composting could yield Chula Vista a net greenhouse gas reduction benefit upwards of 33,000 MTCO2e per year, which is the equivalent emissions of 7,000 cars on the road, or the carbon sequestered by 855,000 tree seedlings grown over 10 years. These benefits should be recognized in CAP goals and adaptation strategies.
Centralized composting and energy production alternatives being considered at the future closed Otay landfill site will provide jobs while supporting a hyper-local, circular economy. Locally produced soil amendments can be fed back to the community, further supporting local economic activities and environmental and social benefits including carbon sequestration. Availability of decentralized options will support community-based efforts to build soil fertility.