A Sure Trail to Trouble

Old MacDonald learned to put up with all that beastly oink-oinking and quack-quacking on his farm, but even he would have drawn the line at the latest proposal facing Ventura County farmers.

The Ventura County Transportation Commission wants to build a 32-mile bike and hiking trail smack through Santa Clara Valley orchards and cropland, stretching from Montalvo through Saticoy, Fillmore and Piru to Rancho Camulos. The Santa Clara Branch Line Trail would follow the old Southern Pacific railroad tracks and become the longest recreational thoroughfare in the county.

The trail’s promoters envision happy families merrily peddling along on orange-blossom-scented Sunday afternoons, soaking in the history and natural beauty of the Heritage Valley and singing the glories of Ventura County agriculture.

The unwilling hosts of this grand plan take a dimmer view. Those orchards and fields aren’t some Disney playground or Hollywood stage set, they are the production end of a living and hard-working industry. A pretty sight from a distance, yes, but with tractors, sprayers, pruners, pickers and irrigation equipment hard at work, certainly a dangerous place for unsupervised city slickers.


And those tempting citrus fruits and avocados dangling from every branch aren’t party favors to make tourists’ picnics complete; they are the inventory of a risky and competitive global industry every bit as bottom-line-oriented as any other business in the county.

Promoters say the trail could attract as many as 300,000 people a year. Farmers fear that all those visitors would bring a bumper crop of litter, thefts and vandalism. Even worse, a trail that lures deep-breathing joggers and bicyclists into the heart of frequently sprayed farms seems guaranteed to produce complaints about noxious pesticide fumes--and under current law that could well lead to requiring buffer zones, at the financial and production expense of the farmers.

As much as we love nature trails and support wholesome exercise, we believe plans for the Santa Clara Branch Line Trail should only proceed in areas where its impact on existing farms can be minimized.

Compounding the challenge: When the Transportation Commission purchased the old railroad right of way from Southern Pacific in 1995, it unwisely neglected to check property titles and deed records to determine the exact dimensions of the property it purchased. In some places, the right of way is 100 feet wide--wide enough to reduce most of the potential conflicts, especially if fenced. But elsewhere, the proposed route is barely wider than the track itself. Unless buffers can be purchased at a fair price from landowners willing to sell, the burden of accommodating the hiking and biking public would fall unfairly on the farmers.

Ventura County has a right-to-farm ordinance that is designed to shield the county’s agriculture industry from exactly these sorts of problems, which are caused by ill-advised construction of incompatible uses adjacent to working farms. This ordinance recognizes a hard reality missed by trail promoters and by others who see farms as idyllic neighbors for everything from schools to mobile home parks to upscale communities:

Farming is a noisy, dirty, sometimes toxic, labor intensive, year-round, 24-hour-a-day business. While Ventura County has many lovely sites for a bike and hiking trail, a route that cuts right through working fields and orchards is the wrong place.