In the last few months I have driven a good part of California, from north to south, on various trips for business and pleasure. I went through part of the Livermore Valley just recently and noticed large swaths of undeveloped ground. This land was idle - it has not yet been developed into homes, it has stayed in agriculture. This inactivity surprised me because one would think that the pressure to develop would be overwhelming in that area - especially to the landowners.
I am not sure what Alameda County’s land use policies are, but it made me think of what we are doing here locally to protect our most vital resource - prime farmland. Before 2008, when the housing boom hit, we could see a lot of development going on everywhere and prime farmland was being devoured quickly. After the economy collapsed in 2008, all housing and development stopped.
During that time, it gave planners and farmland preservation folks a sigh of relief and some time to come up with policies that would correct some of the mistakes that we, as a community, made. The first policy we looked at was the Ag Element to Stanislaus County’s General Plan. County Supervisor Jim DeMartini formed a small committee which included myself, Tom Orvis, County Planning Director Angela Freitas and a few other interested parties to look and find areas for improvement moving forward. We took a 120-page document and whittled it to a 38-page timeless document.
This is an important planning tool for our county and provides guidance when dealing with land in the A-2-40 zones of our county. One of the biggest and most controversial changes included farmland mitigation, one-to-one, on any development which transitioned land from ag use to residential or commercial. This meant that for every acre taken out of production, the developer had to replace it with an easement of land of the same quality. The county was sued by the Building Industry Association (BIA) and lost in our local courts.
Farm Bureau intervened on behalf of Stanislaus County. We appealed to an appellate court, which overturned the local decision. The BIA then appealed to the California Supreme Court, which refused to hear the appeal. In doing so, they affirmed the decision of the appellate court and 1:1 mitigation is our rule. At the same time this decision was now “published” which essentially means defenders of mitigation can use this finding in cases going forward and cite the decision of the court. This was a landmark decision because now there is precedence if it was ever challenged again.
As we move forward and the drum beat gets louder for "affordable housing" and the original Proposition 13 is tested this fall at the ballot box, more pressure will be applied to local land use decision makers. If we think about current events and the crisis we are currently facing, we may be able to live without bottled water and toilet paper but we can’t live without food. Many food stores are stretched thin. Could you imagine these scenarios playing out in a normal situation, where less land is being used for food production? I don’t want to even attempt to imagine that.
I am proud of our county for making agriculture a top priority. Farm Bureau has never wavered from that stance. This crisis we are in right now is a good opportunity to reflect on the wise land use decisions of our recent past.