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A Civil Look At Civics

By Erin Glanville

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About this blog: While state and federal politics dominate the headlines, local issues have an enormous impact on our everyday lives. This blog will attempt to shine a light on topics of public interest and facilitate greater participation in the ...  (More)

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Arata’s Pumpkin Farm And The Grinch(es) Who Stole Halloween (Or At Least Part Of It)

Uploaded: Oct 16, 2013
On this gorgeous Columbus Day, my husband, Jeff, and I took our three children to Arata's Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay. We've been visiting Arata's during the Halloween season for the past 15 years. It's a magical place: a "river" of vibrant orange, red, white and even green pumpkins winds through the valley. Families spread out picnics under corn husk teepees as children jump into hay "pits", play peekaboo in the cornstalks, and search for that ever-so-perfect pumpkin. On this particular trip, there were two buses that arrived at the same time we did: one from a kindergarten in Foster City, the other a tour bus with seniors who had come over the hill to enjoy the day. Suffice it to say, Arata's (which first opened in 1932) is a beloved destination for all ages.

My two older children immediately bee-lined for the hay bale maze … and that's when we noticed a big, unfortunate change. There wasn't one. True, there was a scaled-back maze through a beautiful swath of cornfields. But gone was the elaborate, challenging, enormous hay bale maze Arata's has grown known for having. Also gone was Arata's spooky Haunted House. What was happening? My kids were clearly disappointed. Where was their beloved maze? Who stole one of the most anticipated parts of their Halloween tradition?

As it turns out: the San Mateo County Agricultural Advisory Committee and county government, that's who.

County officials decided that too much of Arata's farmland land use was being devoted to amusement park like attractions and that the farm therefore needed to apply for a coastal development permit. Arata's owner, Chris Gounalakis, applied for an exception to the permit based on "argo-tourism" but was denied. In the end, Mr. Gounalakis had to do away with the Haunted House and drastically scale back the maze. In other words: visitors of all ages lose.

Anyone who has followed Arata's over the years knows that as the farm's reputation and popularity have grown, so the has controversy surrounding it. When neighbors complained about the parking, Arata's proactively responded by hiring parking attendants who guided folks into approved parking spots. Property owners and farmers farther down Highway 1 have complained that Arata's has become such a complete destination point that tourists and visitors aren't making their way down to their farms. Apparently, it's easier to pour a bucket of water on Arata's popularity rather than improve the popularity of your own farm. At the heart of that strategy is the accusation that Arata's is too "amusement park like". This thought process is hard to understand given the fact that Arata's competitors are also under the San Mateo County Farm Bureau's jurisdiction. For example, beloved stalwarts like Webb Ranch and Pastorino's also offer jumpy houses, Haunted Houses, hayrides, train rides. (If that's "amusement park like", sign my family up!! My youngest son, Dylan, can't wait to get there!) All of these wonderful venues bring families out to the farms and to local restaurants and shops and make the process of selecting a pumpkin a true family memory, tradition and celebration.

In these economic times, it's painful to watch government regulation interfere with small business owners and their efforts to compete. It's puzzling to see government not doing everything it can to encourage local farmers (and obviously, pumpkin patch revenue is significant percentage of Arata's bottom line.) While politics at the federal level has led to a shutdown of our national parks, politics and regulatory red-tape on the local level has led to a shut down of something very special to families and Halloween lovers throughout the Bay Area.

Chris Gounalakis and his family vow to continue fighting to obtain permission from the county to bring back the incredible hay maze that Arata's has been known for since 1997. When you listen to Mr. Gounalakis talk about this challenge, you quickly understand that his family is more focused on creating memories for other families than they are on making money. He'll do all he can to overcome "the Grinch" and take back these wonderful Halloween traditions. My family, for one, will be cheering him on.

Comments

Posted by Rebekah, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Please start a petition to send to the County regarding the loss of agricultural property rights and land use. So many farmers, ranchers, equestrian land and businesses have been adversely affected by bureaucracies that invent restrictions that do little or nothing to improve the environment, but in short term cause financial hardship or ruin on local business.

Thanks for letting us know of this - Happy Holidays to the Gounalakis family and hope you can get relief from these restrictions!


Posted by jeannette, a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Ms Glanville\'s report on Arata\'s Farm is well thought out and presented. We no longer have young ones and were unaware of the changes that occurred. I very much enjoyed reading her assessment of the situation and concur with her observations about government regulations getting in the way of established success. Gounalakis family...we wish you a successful and profitable season and the re-creation of a wonderland for kids


Posted by OneBDay, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 7:18 am

That\'s a bummer that politics takes away from the general public AND from the business. I am curious to find out if the "neighbor farmers" are on the San Mateo County Agricultural Advisory Committee.

Neighbor farmers and competitors, toil your own land and try to beat out Arata\'s the correct way, not by standing back and complaining. Make your business better!

Arata\'s FIGHT for your business!


Posted by Angela, a resident of another community,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

It's such a shame that a family-owned and operated business, catering to ALL ages of EVERY community, is restricted in such a manner. To have a farm be "too much of a destination" seems absurd... As I always tell my daughters, "Jealousy is an ugly emotion."

I applaud the Gounalakis Family for continuing to appease everyone when concerns are raised. (I'm sure it's not easy, and I envision lots of family discussion around the table as to what to do that will benefit all.) However, to literally force them to disassemble what has, as pointed out beautifully by Ms. Glanville, become a family tradition in many households, seems totally unnecessary.

Don't we need things to celebrate? Things to bring families closer together? Local businesses to support?

Sigh - politics plays another bad hand...

Hang in there, Gounalakis Family!! Don't let the Grinch steal ANYTHING!

- Angela in San Carlos


Posted by Barry, a resident of another community,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Barry is a registered user.

Unfortunately it is a fine line that must be drawn through a sometimes fuzzy issue. Ostensibly, the local land use laws are in place to protect the public's health, safety and welfare. While not a local, I am familiar with Arata's Pumpkin Farm and the surrounding area. But that isn't necessary to understand the problem because it's increasingly becoming a hot-button issue in any area that has the combination of significant population and nearby agricultural property.

The small farmer/agri-business owner needs to produce revenue streams stemming from his agricultural product beyond the mere sale of what he grows in order to not only compete in a crowded marketplace, but make it worth his while to maintain a farm-based business instead of selling the property for some alternative land use, housing for example. It's important that local governments recognize this and, with sound land use planning, allow these small, mostly family-owned, businesses to thrive. Most municipalities allow the type of retail/service uses such as is described above as an accessory to the primary use of the property for agriculture. The question, where to draw the line, comes to the forefront when it appears the accessory use is outgrowing the primary agricultural use. I see both sides of the issue and there usually aren't simple bumper-sticker answers.

I hope the family's business is ultimately allowed to grow and thrive. And I hope the local government uses this opportunity to look hard at its land use laws and strike a sound balance between the desire to preserve agricultural property/uses and fostering an environment in which they can survive and prosper.


Posted by Erin Glanville, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Barry,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree that there are no simple answers and that local government's land use planning should be done in manner that enables these farmers-- who are also small businesses-- to thrive. Well said.


Posted by BelmontDad, a resident of another community,
on Oct 23, 2013 at 10:29 am

Super disappointing, indeed. I spoke to the owners and others involved and it does sound like primarily petty politics and sour grapes. Suggestion for those who believe in voting with their wallets: do NOT visit any of the places further south. Nothing like a punch in the purse to get someone's attention. As to the broader issue of land use, while likely just an excuse in this particular instance, it certainly does merit serious consideration. One aspect that seems like a key factor (IMHO) is the percentage of time. If one is talking, say, Lemo's, then it's clear we're talking about a full-time amusement park operation. However, if something is just a farm 300 days/year, seems to me that the county should be able to be very flexible with the other 60 days. (Obviously, 300 and 60 are just rough numbers...I'm sure the county can do an enormous expensive study and determine that the right values are 299 and 66. :-) )


Posted by Where's the other side?, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Interesting report, but rather one-sided.

What do the folks at the county agricultural advisory panel have to say about this situation?

Perhaps they have a different version of the story, but it appears no effort was made to get their side of the story.

The Almanac should have higher standards and not encourage one-sided pieces like this to be published on its site.


Posted by Erin Glanville, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Thank you for reading, Where's The Other Side. I do need to point out that blogs are opinion pieces. If you detected a slant or bias, there admittedly is one.

I understand that there are land use issues and that government does have a role. In my opinion, it should be done in manner that enables these small businesses to thrive. I also love tradition, and it is sad to see politics get in the way of something so beloved by a community.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and hopefully you will come back to read future postings despite my bias. :-) Erin


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