OCEANSIDE — With the general election less than two months away, two of the most vocal opponents of the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative, Neil Nagata with Nagata Brothers Farms Inc. and Michelle C. Keeler with Mellano & Company, have launched a campaign to defeat the measure.
Nagata Brothers has been in business since the early 1940s. The farm primarily grows berry crops such as strawberries and some melons.
Nagata is president of Nagata Brothers Farms as well as the San Diego Farm Bureau. Mellano & Company has been in business for nearly 100 years. The company is one of the largest flower growers/suppliers in the U.S., with stores in Los Angeles, Orange County, Carlsbad and Las Vegas. They have supplied flowers to The Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, the LA County Fair, the US Open, the Grammy Awards and the Oscars.
Ever since enough voters signed a petition to allow the SOAR initiative on the general election ballot, Nagata and Keeler have been outspoken critics, claiming that if the measure passes, they are in danger of going out of business.
Nagata in particular referred many times to the “ … wealthy homeowners backing the initiative,” suggesting that the agricultural land that is now zoned for 2.5 acre parcels would be turned into McMansions, estates for the very rich.
A few days after Labor Day Oceanside voters received a letter in the mail from Nagata and Keeler, accompanied by a four-color, two-sided flyer with a headline asserting that claim. It read: “Measure Y forces Oceanside farms to be developed as expensive homes on 2.5-acre lots that only the wealthy can afford.” The letter suggested that the measure is misleading, does nothing to protect parkland or any other public spaces and suggested that the initiative is akin to eminent domain as it pertains to their land.
The flyer directs voters to a website: www.keepfarmingoceanside.org. When visitors scroll through the site they discover that the campaign to vote “No on Y,” is supported by farmers, taxpayers, residents, Nagata Brothers Farms and Mellano & Co., as well as “major funding from North River Farms, Project Owner.” North River Farms is the proposed community in South Morro Hills of nearly 700 homes, a boutique hotel and restaurants that Integral Communities Inc., an Orange County developer, the 12th largest in the country, presented to the Oceanside Planning Commission and City Council in 2017.
According to Dennis Martinek, one of the drafters of the SOAR initiative, the campaign literature “ … makes it clear that this isn’t the other side trying to protect farming, but rather they’re in league with the builders and developers.” He also said that in late August the Keep Farming in Oceanside committee filed a Form 497 with the California Fair Political Practices Commission declaring that it had received a $10,000 donation to their campaign from the California Building Industry Association.
According to the association website, the organization “Builds California’s economy by providing quality environmentally responsible housing, creating tens of thousands of good paying jobs and generating billions in state and local revenues.”
Nagata, Keeler and Ninia Hammond, Project Manager with Integral Communities Inc., did not respond to our request for comment regarding the Integral Communities funding nor the donation from the Building Industry Association.
Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss weighed in on the contentious debate saying: “The primary issue isn’t farming, it’s the project. But eventually Morro Hills will be developed.” He went on to say that by dividing the acreage up into smaller lots as many as 1,600 homes can be built on the land. “We would like to maintain the rural character,” Weiss said. “There needs to be a balance.” He mentioned the Arrowood community as a good example of smart development. Weiss also said that he would “ … hate to see future development hamstrung.”
City Councilwoman Esther Sanchez said the Nagata and Mellano families have been trying to bring in high-density housing for years. “Now they’re taking advantage of the fact that one developer has come to town who wants to build high-density housing in all of Morro Hills.”
She said that the only thing stopping the North River Farms project and future such development is SOAR.
“It’s our quality of life in Oceanside that’s at stake,” Sanchez said. “Developers want to take over Oceanside agricultural land because it’s cheap. But the city can’t support putting services out there, which means we would have to contract out those services such as police and fire. Response times would be much longer.”
Sanchez went on to say that she believes that people are generally good and don’t want to think ill of anyone, but when something bad happens their feelings change.
On Sept. 6 KOCT held a North County Roundtable that featured pro/con representatives for the SOAR initiative (entire video available above). Martinek, Diane Nygaard (Friends of El Corazon) represented the pro side, Nagata and Keeler the con.
Voters can read the SOAR initiative on www.oceanside-soar.org.