At every LAFCO meeting they put out a stack of pamphlets entitled “What is LAFCO?” Yeah, it’s a good question. LAFCO has three objectives: “To Encourage the Orderly Formation of Local Government Agencies,” “To PreserveAgricultural Land Resources,” and To Discourage Urban Sprawl.”
And so, by their own measure, the Stanislaus LAFCO has been a failure. Our county, one of the top farm producing counties in the nation, has one of the worst records for directing sprawl away from prime soils. Before the housing bubble burst, as much as 81% of new growth occurred on high quality farmland in Stanislaus County. The American Farmland Trust ranked our county last in this category in the entire Central Valley. Clearly, LAFCO has not been doing its job.
A perfect example of how LAFCO ignores its objectives and rubber stamps bad growth came at the March meeting this year. Our commissioners voted unanimously to approve a massive expansion of Ceres, including 3,600 new homes, onto hundreds of acres of productive farmland. Documents from the City of Ceres said that the impact to farmland from this project would be “significant and unavoidable” and that no mitigation measures would be possible.
Everyone seemed to know that this project was horrible. The last thing we need is thousands of more houses. Everyone knew that Ceres could have asked the developers to mitigate the loss of farmland. Everyone knew they hadn’t secured a source for water other than groundwater. And, the City of Ceres was using pre-housing crash statistics to justify the expansion. And yet, the LAFCO commissioners threw their hands in the air and said they had to approve the expansion.
A few commissioners seemed to be embarrassed. Stanislaus LAFCO is currently looking at farmland protection policies enacted by LAFCOs in Yolo, Napa, San Luis Obispo and Ventura Counties. Our LAFCO is considering a number of restrictions that could help, although it might give cities some options that would allow bad growth to continue. Their new policy could merely give the illusion of doing something, and this would be a step backwards. Those of us concerned about smart planning need to watch closely.
Brad Barker, Conservation Chair, Yokuts Sierra Club
Kicking the Can
Former Modesto City Councilman Denny Jackman wears an elevated orthopedic shoe to compensate for a short leg. Jackman likes to joke he had the shoe made to better enable him to, “kick the can down the road.”
As a long time participant in local politics, Jackman has seen a lot of can-kicking, much of it involving elected officials doing anything they can to avoid protecting farmland or preventing sprawl. He witnessed a prolonged effort when Stanislaus County’s nine mayors met over a period of many months to devise a growth plan. With much fanfare and praise from local media for “working together,” the mayors managed to produce no plan at all. Instead, they came up with a sprawl lover’s dream come true: A “plan” that merged every major city in the county into a megalopolis modeled after San Jose.
No question the mayors are top tier can kickers, but they have serious rivals on the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo). Charged by the state with preventing sprawl and protecting farmland, LAFCo commissioners seem to be doing everything they can to avoid their mandate.
Their lack of a farmland protection policy has resulted in an ongoing expansion of Stanislaus County cities that seems to have no end in sight. Over the years, Jackman has become so frustrated at such political inaction that he’s joined others in campaigns to write and promote measures to direct development away from prime farmland.
Jackman has had his share of losses in these campaigns, beginning with the “Save Agriculture For Ever (SAFE)” campaign in 1990, when he worked with Peggy Mensinger. He’s also had some major victories, most notably the Measure E campaign (“Stamp Out Sprawl”) in 2008, when he worked with current Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh.
The Great Disconnect
Jackman and other farmland protection advocates have come to believe that the vast majority of Valley citizens support farmland protection and oppose sprawl. They think there is a wide disconnection between the actions of local politicians and the wishes of their constituents, mostly because farmland protection is rarely an issue in local campaigns.
“Elected representatives are typically not voted in our out of office by farmland protection issues,” he said recently. “There are exceptions, yet support for local candidates comes from sources that support more and more urbanization.”
Developer money is a major factor in most local elections, and prospective candidates must consider the consequences of opposing developers, which often include the possibility of being smeared as well as outspent.
While Jackman has never been alone in his quest to save farmland, of late he’s noticed a greater awareness of just how critical farmland issues have become. When LAFCo approved an annexation of farmland by the city of Ceres last March, a group called “Protect Agricultural Land (PAL)” quickly formed and filed suit. The suit was in part based on LAFCo’s agreement with the City that there was no way to mitigate the loss of farmland.
The City’s position was seemingly ludicrous on its surface, since farmland losses have been mitigated in many places for many years. LAFCo’s approval of the annexation seemed not only a blatant dereliction of LAFCo’s state mandate, it was also an apparent violation of aspects of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Like Denny Jackman, Jeanni Ferarri has followed growth issues in Stanislaus County for decades. She was stunned by the LAFCo decision.
“LAFCo’s role in protecting farmland and promoting orderly growth is critical in a county like Stanislaus,” she said recently. “LAFCo is the last line of defense. The public relies on this agency to do the right thing. LAFCo has the responsibility to uphold CEQA. I believe the commission didn’t uphold CEQA; it simply rubber-stamped the project. I really wonder if all the commissioners understand the importance of LAFCo and their charge.”
Actually, there’s a good chance the commissioners do understand LAFCo and are simply trying to obstruct its mission. Northern San Joaquin Valley politicians have a long history of disdain for environmental regulations in general and especially for CEQA. LAFCo Commissioner Bill O’Brien’s incessant refrain, “I believe the power resides in the people,” is his way of saying he wants no part of LAFCo’s responsibility to protect farmland and prevent sprawl. He’d much rather the effort and expense be borne by private citizens like Denny Jackman, Jeanni Ferrari, and Garrad Marsh, who rarely have the resources to oppose powerful developers.
Your Tax Dollars
The LAFCo budget for 2012-13 is $424,811. It includes $20,000 for legal expenses. Last year’s $12,000 reserve was severely depleted due to “outside litigation.” LAFCo is facing more litigation in the coming months. The litigation is clearly related to the failure of LAFCo Commissioners to fulfill their state-mandated mission. Given LAFCo’s overall failure to implement anti-sprawl and farmland protection measures, its budget is very hard to justify.
In fact, LAFCo in Stanislaus County seems to be serving purposes antithetical to its mission. When ignoring sprawl and failing to protect farmland, LAFCo seems more and more to be using tax dollars in service to the interests of the Asphalt Empire.