LAFCO: Longest Rehearsal in Regional History Continues

 

Jim DeMartini

The Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO) is a government agency charged with protecting farmland and preventing sprawl. In places like Ventura, Yolo, and Sonoma Counties, LAFCO has played a major role in establishing firm boundaries to protect farmland from urban encroachment. Things are different here in Stanislaus County.

“We haven’t done a very good job,” said LAFCO board member Jim DeMartini, who is also a Stanislaus County Supervisor.

DeMartini is well aware that from 1990 to 2000, 81% of the land developed in Stanislaus County was high quality farmland. A farmer himself, DeMartini understands just how different high quality farmland is from farmland in general.

“We have a unique situation here,” said DeMartini at last Wednesday’s LAFCO Board meeting. “Nowhere else in the world has our combination of water, climate, and soil. We can grow 250 different crops and Stanislaus County produces over a billion dollars a year in farm revenue.”

Given that the nation is in the grip of a blistering drought and heat wave that have destroyed thousands of acres of farm produce, local crop revenue is very likely to rise to even higher levels as shortages drive prices up.

But since his term on LAFCO began, DeMartini has faced increasing frustration as local LAFCO Board members too often seem willing to delay any significant action to protect farmland. Wednesday night’s meeting was a classic case in point, as board members demonstrated almost comic examples of the “dither, delay, and defer” tactics that have characterized local politicians for years when it comes to land use policy.

Bill O’Brien, himself a Stanislaus County Supervisor, wanted no part of LAFCO responsibility. “I believe the power resides in the people,” said O’Brien repeatedly.

“But this is what we’re supposed to do,” said DeMartini, obviously exasperated.

DeMartini wasn’t the only one who seemed to be losing patience with the failure of LAFCO to fulfill its duties. Yokuts Sierra Club Chair Brad Barker reminded the board that nothing has happened for years, and board members should realize they can’t make everyone happy.

“No matter what you do, some people are going to be unhappy, so you may as well do the right thing and protect the farmland,” said Barker.

But, despite their charge to protect farmland and oppose sprawl, some board members seemed sympathetic to those who claim there’s no need to protect local farmland. Representatives of the Building Industry Association argued there has been a net increase in farmland in recent years, and to an extent they’re correct.

The problem is, the increase in farmland is due to farmers moving onto less productive soils because we’ve lost so much high quality farmland close to our cities. Whereas high quality farmland can grow over 250 crops with efficient use of water, lower value farmland can grow only four or five crops with far less efficiency.

And while DeMartini exhorted his fellow board members, “to have some backbone,” at the end of the meeting there was once again no progress toward a policy that would protect what is indeed a “unique” farmland resource. The board decided that it needed more study of the various ways to protect farmland and prevent sprawl, and moved on in its endless rehearsal of Act I in another ongoing tragicomedy of political cowardice.

About Eric Caine

Eric Caine teaches in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.