Brad Barker is Conservation Chair of Yokuts Chapter of the Sierra Club. He is a close follower of local land use issues and an ardent advocate of smart growth.
Smart, orderly land use planning is crucial to protecting our environment. Land use is directly connected to air quality, water quality and supply, climate change, habitat loss, transportation problems, farmland protection and other important environmental issues.
In each of California’s 58 counties, there is an agency charged with overseeing the expansion of city boundaries, preserving agricultural resources and discouraging urban sprawl. That agency is the Local Agency Formation Commission or “LAFCo.” The Yokuts Group of the Sierra Club strongly endorses LAFCO’s mission. Their land use goals are among our highest priorities.
On March 25th, Stanislaus LAFCO amended its Ag Preservation Policy to recommend a formula for farmland mitigation. The intention was to let wayward local cities know that they must provide 1-for -1 full mitigation for the loss of farmland to new housing. This was a huge (3-2) victory for smart planning. Commissioners Jim DeMartini, Terry Withrow and Matt Beekman voted in favor. Brad Hawn and Amy Bublak voted with the building industry. Now, six minor mayors are trying to replace Hughson Mayor Beekman on LAFCO. That would be ridiculous. Beekman is excellent. He needs to stay.
A 2013 report from the American Farmland Trust, “Saving Farmland, Growing Cities,” shows Stanislaus County as the worst county in the San Joaquin Valley for the percentage of development that converts high quality farmland. Sadly, it’s 87%. Much of the fault here lies with the nine cities of Stanislaus County, including the cities with mayors now trying to rig the local LAFCo.
Stanislaus County has consistently been among the top ten agricultural producing counties in the United States. Farm production and the connected industries — packing, processing, transporting, marketing, etc. are the backbone of our local economy. The general plans of all nine cities and Stanislaus County recognize the importance of farmland preservation. And yet, some city officials in some cities are objecting to a fairly-imposed plan to mitigate the loss of agricultural lands. Their actions are disheartening.
For years now, cities have asked for a “level playing field” when it comes to farmland preservation so that cities with lax development standards don’t grab unfair advantage. Developers have asked for more “certainty” in the process. The amended policy would help to achieve both of those outcomes.
The preservation of farmland is a core belief of the people of Stanislaus County. Last year, Modesto City Council chambers overflowed with residents protesting the possible annexation of Wood Colony. In 2009, Modesto voters rejected all five advisory growth measures proposed by the city. The most successful of the five still lost by 60%. In 2008, Stanislaus County voters overwhelmingly approved Meaure E to restrict residential development on county lands outside the nine cities. The measure passed two-to-one (67%). Certainly the voters were not voting to protect county farmland so that it could be gobbled up by sprawling cities.
So the question arises: Why do some local officials seem so insulated from the values of the people they represent?
On May 13th, the selection committee for the mayors of the nine cities in Stanislaus County will meet at Turlock City Hall at 6 PM to consider replacing Mayor Beekman on LAFCo. The mayors need to hear from their constituents that Mayor Beekman should stay put. Even The Modesto Bee editorial board (who are inconsistent on smart planning) called this “an ill-advised coup attempt…about courting favor with deep-pocket builders.”
Please contact your local mayor. It’s definitely not the time to return to pre-recession patterns of sprawl that drained public revenues, spread public services too thin, and were horrible for the environment.