On September 26, the Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) voted 4-1 to adopt a policy that requires cities to prepare farmland conservation plans before they annex more land or expand their spheres of influence. This is believed to be the first such LAFCO policy in the San Joaquin Valley, though the Kings County LAFCO had previously taken the step of reducing the size of the spheres of influence within its jurisdiction for the purpose of saving farmland.
LAFCOs are government bodies, composed of officials of cities, counties and special districts, which must approve any change in the boundary of these local jurisdictions. Their mandate is to promote orderly growth and conserve farmland. Few LAFCOs, however, have taken affirmative steps to save farmland and instead tend to approve boundary expansions without considering the impact on agriculture.
The new Stanislaus policy is unclear on what must be included in the cities’ farmland conservation plans, recommending a variety of approaches, including reducing the size of spheres, farmland mitigation fees and urban growth boundaries. But the policy does stipulate that cities must demonstrate that they have not allocated more farmland to development than is necessary for the amount and type that is likely to occur. This is a critical question in a region where virtually every city is surrounded by farmland. But how this requirement will be interpreted is also open to question.
Existing spheres of influence in Stanislaus County – areas around cities officially designated for growth – encompass 32,000 acres (50 square miles) of land, much of it highly productive farmland. According to an analysis by American Farmland Trust, this is enough to accommodate anticipated growth to the year 2041 at the current densities of the cities in Stanislaus County. If development were to occur at the higher densities called for by the Stanislaus COG’s Blueprint, the capacity of the existing spheres would not be exhausted until 2056. This raises the question about whether any boundary expansion is necessary.
At the last minute, the Stanislaus Commission agreed that their farmland conservation policy should apply to residential but not commercial development, though again, it isn’t clear what this entails. Cities had complained that Stanislaus County itself is not required to get approval for commercial development in unincorporated areas adjacent to the cities. This could give the County an advantage in attracting retail development – think “big box” stores and auto malls – that generates much-needed sales tax revenue. It would also leave cities with the burden of accommodating all residential development, which generally does not pay enough taxes to cover the cost of providing residents with public services. In 2008, in another effort to save farmland, voters overwhelmingly passed Measure E, which prohibited all residential development in unincorporated areas of the county without further voter approval.
The LAFCO policy has provoked wider debate over farmland conservation in Stanislaus County, which produced $3 billion worth of food and other agricultural products last year. The Commission originally wanted to extend a County-adopted farmland mitigation program to the nine cities, lest it be nullified when cities annex land. But the cities resisted this idea, instead proposing urban growth boundaries as a way to save farmland. City mayors then proposed boundaries that were three times as large as the spheres of influence and would allow development of 25 percent of the county’s prime farmland. They now appear to have reconsidered and are planning a workshop early next year, to which AFT has been invited, where they will learn about a wide range of farmland conservation techniques.