Ask a Stanislaus County resident what LAFCo is, and there’s a 99% chance you’ll draw a blank look. That same resident may lament the ongoing loss of local farmland and the blighted appearance of empty houses and brown yards but never know that there exists a local government agency charged with preserving farmland and preventing sprawl. Unfortunately, that agency has been the developers’ best kept secret.
By the 1950s, the people of California had realized that growth in the Golden State threatened the very resources that made California such a desirable destination. By 1959, the problems posed by urban growth were so severe that Governor Edmund Brown established the Commission on Metropolitan Area Problems to recommend remedies for runaway growth and its negative effects on the environment. The Commission found that growth and jurisdiction problems in California warranted the establishment of “Local Agency Formation Commissions,” or “LAFCo.”
LAFCo became a reality in all 58 California counties in 1963. Today, two of its chief objectives are “To Preserve Agricultural Land Resources” and “To Discourage Urban Sprawl.”
And while all California counties have a LAFCo, the role of LAFCo in each county varies widely. In counties like Napa, Ventura, and Yolo, LAFCo has been a major force for the establishment of firm urban boundaries and the enduring preservation of farmland. In Stanislaus County, LAFCo has been rendered impotent by the Asphalt Empire and lack of media scrutiny.
The biggest impediment to LAFCo’s influence is public ignorance about its existence and mandate, but a close second is the domination of its board by developers and promoters of urban expansion. Typical LAFCo commissioners include two county supervisors, two city council members from cities within the LAFCo county jurisdiction, and a member of the public. At least since the late 1980s, the Stanislaus County political arena has been dominated by developers who have backed politicians who oppose urban boundaries, oppose mitigation for losses of agricultural land, and oppose adherence to the values encoded in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). These politicians in turn actively seek places as LAFCo Comissioners.
When Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini became a LAFCo Commisioner several years ago, he was stunned at its failure to achieve its mission. He also found there are consequences to being an outspoken advocate of farmland preservation. DeMartini has been smeared on You Tube, sued on the basis that his campaign to preserve farmland represents a conflict of interest (DeMartini is a farmer), and the target of a phony scandal featuring a young woman and celebrity attorney Mark Geragos. He’s even been busted by the Modesto Bee’s Civility Police.
DeMartini is convinced that most of the harassment he’s endured has been instigated by those who oppose urban boundaries and mitigation for agricultural losses. Because he funds his own campaigns and seems uninterested in a political career as his primary occupation, DeMartini has been far harder to discourage than most politicians.
“I don’t need the job,” he says, in response to those who ask whether his forthright candor might jeopardize his political future.
But despite his dogged determination and a work ethic that keeps him on the job long past the time when most would have given up, DeMartini hasn’t been able to achieve any measure of success in getting LAFCo to fulfill its state-mandated mission.
“They haven’t done anything,” says DeMartini in frustration as he lists example after example of cases when LAFCo should have intervened to halt sprawl and protect farmland.
Recently, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society have taken a greater interest in farmland preservation, and DeMartini welcomes their presence. “I need all the help I can get,” he says often.
Nonetheless, without greater public awareness of LAFCo’s failures, it’s very likely to remain not only the developers’ best kept secret, but one of the Asphalt Empire’s greatest allies.
Next: Your tax dollars at work—for the Asphalt Empire