Last Wednesday’s LAFCo decision to require mitigation for encroachment onto ag land met with wide approval, but Scott Calkins has an insider’s view that might temper the celebration. No one denies the decision was a big step forward, but parts of the policy are cause for real concern. Here’s Scott with the inside story.
I attended the LAFCo meeting on September 26, 2012 and read the article that appeared in the Modesto Bee the following day written by Garth Stapley. My impression of the article is that it gives an inaccurate account of what unfolded at the meeting by omitting some import comments made by supporters of farmland preservation, as well as comments made by the alternate members of the commission.
The article also failed to explain why the public member of the Commission, Tia Saletta, cast her vote against a poorly crafted policy that may in the end actually accelerate the loss of prime farmland in Stanislaus County. What follows is my own account of what I saw unfold at LAFCo’s last meeting.
The draft document of the Agricultural Preservation Policy was introduced by LAFCO staff who described it as having a “menu of options” which would allow cities “flexibility” in how they go about farmland preservation. My concern upon hearing how the policy was introduced was that the “flexibility” laid out in the “menu options” creates multiple loopholes that may be so large that the end result of adopting this policy may mean no improvement in the county’s poor record of protecting prime farmland from development. When I was called to speak first during public comment on this agenda item I made it clear that I supported the Commission moving forward to adopt an agricultural preservation policy, but that the “menu of options” appeared to weaken any real effect it may have.
As members of the public made their comments, it became clear that those who favored farmland preservation or conservation also had some reservations about the “menu of options.” Some even went so far as to suggest that if the policy was adopted as presented in the draft so that it might accelerate the loss of prime farmland by allowing cities too much flexibility to sidestep its intent.
I am concerned that the Bee article written by Garth Stapley went too far toward giving the appearance that well-spoken supporters of preserving farmland were giving the policy an unqualified endorsement. In contrast, what I heard from people like Vance Kennedy, Brad Barker, Wayne Zipser, and others was a combination of praise for finally doing something mixed with reservations that this policy may have little or no effect as a result of the loopholes that had been built into the document. Most of the supporters would have preferred a policy that applied a 1:1 ratio of preservation without the “menu of options,” in order that LAFCO might help save something like half of Stanislaus County’s current prime farmland.
After George Petrulakis made a particularly long case that any policy to protect farmland would only invite law suits from land use attorneys like himself, the draft policy went back to the commissioners for some interesting debate. Alternate members like Matthew Beekman , Vito Chiesa, and Ron Freitas, all made strong statements that the draft policy should be cleaned up to eliminate most, if not all of the “menu of options.” They all recognized the importance of 1:1 (acre for acre) mitigation if LAFCO was serious about preserving farmland. In addition, if there was just one method of compliance, LAFCO could avoid arguments between cities about whether some cities were manipulating options like the urban growth boundaries in order to avoid 1:1 mitigation costs.
When the discussion came to the voting members, Commissioner Tia Saletta also favored cleaning up the loopholes to create a policy that had a better chance of actually achieving its goal. Tia Saletta made it clear that she agreed with the arguments being made by the alternate commissioners that the language in the draft was too vague and compliance would be difficult to judge.
Finally, it came time to make a motion on whether to adopt the policy and Chairman Charles Goeken agreed to remove the most vaguely written option from the “menu” of strategies. Then Chairman Goeken insisted that staff include language in the policy that would grant an outright exemption to LAFCO’s Agricultural Preservation Policy for both commercial and industrial development. Chairman Goeken’s argument was that a county with high unemployment could not pass a policy that would make it more difficult to bring jobs to the area.
Commissioner Jim DeMartini made it clear that he would not object to the exemption for conversions of prime farmland for commercial and industrial use. The policy went to a vote with the contentious option of voter-approved urban growth boundaries left in as one of the strategies for compliance. When the role-call vote was taken it was 4 to1, with commissioners Goeken, O’Brien, Bublak, and DeMartini all in favor and commissioner Tia Saletta opposed.
I felt Tia Saletta’s vote took courage and deserved better coverage in the Bee article. Her dissent was based on a desire for a more effective policy with fewer loopholes in order to offer real hope of farmland preservation.
My own conclusion is that LAFCO passed a weak policy that is aimed almost entirely against only one form of sprawl—— residential home construction.
I agree with other supporters of farmland preservation that this policy may be a small step in the right direction; however, the complete exemption of commercial and industrial use has me gravely concerned. Indeed this new policy may cause an acceleration of the loss of prime farmland caused by permits for auto dealerships, big-box distribution centers and a smorgasbord of other commercial/industrial users that have helped to pave over farmland in Southern California and the Bay Area.
On an increasingly crowded and hungry planet where will my children grow the food for the next generation? It is time to begin thinking more long term about what true economic sustainability looks like for California and the nation. I want future generations to have access to healthy, affordable, locally grown food like the kind currently being produced by Stanislaus County’s creative and productive farming community. LAFCo has more work to do in order to insure this policy will achieve its main purpose. In addition, I look forward to more complete coverage of this complicated subject in future Bee articles.