In many counties across California, prime farmland surrounds rapidly growing cities, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown between the need to develop land for residential and commercial uses and the need to protect the state’s remaining agricultural resources. In Stanislaus County, the sixth largest farm producer in the state, this contest is coming to a head as the cities, the county and the Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO) are all debating policies that will affect the balance.
The County took the first step by adopting a policy requiring developers to mitigate the loss of farmland by paying to preserve an equal amount of land under conservation easements. But this policy does not apply to farmland within city limits because cities are independent units of local government. So, if a city expanded its limits to allow the development of more farmland, the County’s mitigation policy would be null and void. Making it worse was the fact that Stanislaus voters had earlier passed a ballot measure forbidding residential development outside of cities. In effect, the conversion of farmland to housing would not be mitigated anywhere in the county.
To remedy this, Stanislaus LAFCO, an agency that must approve all government boundary changes – and that has a mandate under state law to conserve farmland – proposed a policy requiring cities to mitigate farmland loss as a condition of expanding their limits or areas where future growth is to be planned, called “spheres of influence.” Most of the nine cities in Stanislaus resisted this policy, apparently in the belief, promoted by the building industry, that it would cause developers to take their business elsewhere. Instead, they got together and came up with a counterproposal: draw urban growth boundaries beyond which development could not occur and prime farmland would be preserved.
The problem is that, while well-intentioned, the boundaries proposed by the cities extend far beyond their existing spheres of influence, which are themselves more than big enough to accommodate all anticipated development out to the year 2035. In fact, according to an analysis done for AFT by the Information Center for the Environment at U.C. Davis, the proposed boundaries encompass one quarter of all the prime farmland in Stanislaus County. And, as AFT California Director Ed Thompson explained to a gathering of all the city mayors, the excessively large boundaries would needlessly destabilize agriculture by creating unrealistic expectations about development, fueling land speculation and causing disinvestment in farming operations.
At their meeting in late July, the LAFCO commissioners seemed divided between a policy focusing on mitigation of farmland loss wherever it occurs and one that would exempt cities that have adopted an urban growth boundary. But, as AFT San Joaquin Field Representative Dan O’Connell pointed out in his testimony, the most effective way to save farmland is to simply minimize the amount of land that is developed for urban uses. Neither mitigation nor urban growth boundaries will help achieve this goal, if cities do not also make a firm commitment to promote more efficient development patterns that consume less farmland for each new resident or job. Indeed, urban growth boundaries that are too large will actually work against this goal by making it appear that there is “plenty” of land to develop.
O’Connell noted that the Blueprint plan adopted by the Stanislaus Council of Governments contemplates an increase in overall urban efficiency (or density) from roughly nine people per acre to 14 people per acre. This alone would save more than 10,000 acres of prime farmland and stretch the development capacity of the cities’ spheres of influence by 17 years. He called on LAFCO to adopt a farmland conservation policy that would require cities to show that there is a real need to expand their city limits or spheres of influence, based on the assumption that future development would occur at the average Blueprint density.
Stanislaus LAFCO will next meet in September, when it is expected to make a decision on what kind of farmland conservation policy it wants.