The Future is Now: Central Valley Farmland at the Tipping Point?
Executive Summary
Resumen Ejecutivo
Current Trends
     Population Growth
  Farmland Use and Development
  Quality of Farmland Developed
  Efficiency of Urban Development
  "Ranchettes" & Other Rural Development
  Agricultural Trends
Local Plans & Performance
  Analytical Method
  Sutter County
  Sacramento County
  Yolo County
  San Joaquin County
  Stanislaus County
  Merced County
  Madera County
  Fresno County
  Tulare County
  Kings County
  Kern County
Where is The Valley Heading?
Time for Change
  Ideas for Change
What You Can Do
  Rank Your County
  Local Official Contacts
  Local Organizations
  Support AFT
Methodology & Background Data
About AFT in California

Analysis of County & City General Plans: How Well Are They Preserving Farmland?

The development of farmland does not just happen. It is driven by population growth and influenced by market forces, but it is shaped by county and city general plans that represent the basic land use policy of local communities.  The plans are supposed to guide official decision-making that determines actual land use patterns. 

To try to explain what has been happening to farmland — and what is likely to happen in the future — we analyzed the general plans of the Central Valley’s counties and major cities.  We compared the intention of the plans with their specific provisions (such as how much development is allowed in rural areas) and the available evidence of what is actually occurring on the ground.  As a field check, our analysis included interviews with local planners and elected officials.

Compare the intent of local plans with the evidence of how well they are being carried out.

As you compare the intent of local plans with evidence of how well they are being carried out, keep in mind that most of the evidence is countywide and, thus, does not enable one to determine how much the actions of cities or the county itself have contributed to the results. If this means that the on-the-ground results cannot be attributed to any single local jurisdiction, it also underscores the need for cities and counties to work together to preserve farmland and improve the quality of life in the Valley.

The Overall Picture: Good Intentions, Largely Unfulfilled

Though most general plans in the Central Valley are well-intentioned, their good intentions appear not to have been fulfilled by their actual implementation. The best farmland is being developed fastest and very inefficiently. Rural development seems to be largely out of control. And local plans are changed with enough frequency — permitting development of farmland originally earmarked for agriculture — that the ensuing uncertainty leads to questions about whether plans have any teeth at all.

Most local plans call for development to be guided away from high quality farmland. But high quality farmland is being developed faster than lower productivity land in nearly every county. This can be explained by the fact that the Valley's cities, adjacent to which most growth is occurring, are located in the midst of high quality farmland. Thus, to the extent local plans call for city-centered growth, they are being fulfilled — but to the apparent detriment of agriculture.

Photo courtesy of Kern County Farm Bureau

Local plans call for efficient urban development that minimizes the conversion of farmland. But in most counties urban development is far less efficient, in terms of the amount of land consumed per capita, than in other areas of California. Contributing to the inefficiency of urban development seems to be the fact that almost every major city has earmarked far more land for development within their spheres of influence than will be needed to house the population in the foreseeable future, even if per capita land consumption does not improve. This leads one to question whether they are, in fact, planning for smart growth — or more urban sprawl?

Local plans also call for avoiding scattered rural development. But ranchettes, which house very few people at the very lowest densities, have consumed between a quarter and one-third as much land as all urban development combined. And current agricultural zoning in most counties allows the building of ranchette homes on smaller parcels of high quality farmland than on grazing land and other less productive soils. Apparently, this is based on the theory that the better the land, the less acreage is needed to support a farm family. But most of those who live on ranchettes do not depend on agriculture for their financial well-being. So, again, it is the best farmland in the Valley that is most vulnerable to ranchettes as well as urban development.

Frequent amendments to local plans may engender a disrespect for established land use policy.

Another problematic thing about local plans is that they are changed quite frequently to approve new development of farmland that originally was not contemplated. We found that, during roughly the decade of the 1990s (with a little leeway on either side) more than 30 general plan amendments by cities and counties in the 11-county area we studied resulted in the redesignation of more than 8,000 acres from agriculture to residential and other non-farm uses. (See details in the tables accompanying individual county analyses.) But only 6 of the 22 jurisdictions we asked for this data were able to provide it in a timely manner — in and of itself, a commentary on the efficacy of planning. Some changes in plans are inevitable and desirable, but if changes occur often enough it may engender a disrespect for established land use policy and encourage those who want to develop farmland to seek additional changes. When surprised neighbors and other citizens react by opposing new development, whether or not it makes sense, everyone loses. We haven't been able to document this phenomenon as well as we would like, but anecdotal accounts of it are widespread and pose a serious problem for local planners and elected officials.

california county outlines sutter county yolo county sacramento county san joaquin county stanislaus county merced county madera county fresno county kings county tulare county kern county
[Click on a county to view
analysis of that county]

Promise for the Future

On the bright side, there are some outstanding examples of good planning in the Valley — like the Sacramento region's Blueprint Project — and exciting new planning ventures in the works — not least, that of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. The former offers a useful model and the latter, just now getting underway, offers hope that a regional vision will emerge to narrow the gap between local planning and performance.

The results of our analysis of each county can be viewed by clicking it on the map to the right. Before doing so, it will be helpful to read more about our analytical method.

[To read about our Analytical Method click here.]

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