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.

Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught 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.
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  1. I was at the meeting and was impressed by the straight talk that came from Mr. DeMartini. Of all the LAFCO board members he seems to understand best what is at stake if they do not act to make farmland mitigation a reality in Stanislaus County. I did find it somewhat curious that he used some of the same arguments to protect prime farmland that I had used one hour earlier at the StanCOG meeting. At StanCOG I was making a case against the SR132 West expressway project in the FTIP. Even Mr. DeMartini does not recognize the role that a project like SR132 West will have in becoming an engine, or catalyst for sprawl in District 3 of Stanislaus County. I would urge Mr. DeMartini to join me in opposing this misguided project.


    Scott Calkins

  2. I was at the meeting last Wednesday. I was amazed by the inaction of the board. I was also dismayed by the document the staff prepared for the board. It is vague and ineffective. I was very impressed by Mr. DeMartini. He has a firm grasp on what needs to be done. His fellow board members need to get with the same program and do their jobs. Enough with the delays. Protect our farmland now.

  3. Denny Jackman and I have been trying since the 1980’s to get our local legislators to establish urban limit lines. In all that time, our community has been stuck in the same position thanks to the effective opposition of the building industry. The developers are using the same tactics that were used to completely pave over the Santa Clara and San Fernando Valleys of California. Because we have not had food shortages, they continue to be effective. When the food shortages start, it will be too late to start saving farm land. Everyone will become aware of the food shortages when prices start to rise rapidly. Next year will be an introduction to what is soon to become a regular event. Selling our water to San Francisco will bring sooner the future food shortages and the day of reckoning for our negligent stewardship of the land.

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