Apr 7, 2007
Booming Population Threatens Unique National Treasure

This is the second in a series of articles on farmland preservation.

When Edward Thompson Jr. took over as California state director for American Farmland Trust in the fall of 2003, he passed up a great opportunity to rest on his laurels.

“Why am I here? It’s where the rubber meets the road,” he said about his decision to take on farmland preservation in the nation’s most populous and most agricultural state.

Thompson has been with American Farmland Trust (AFT) since 1981, the year after the organization was founded. In the years that followed, Thompson was a primary architect as AFT gained a national reputation for its creative leadership in the effort to preserve farmland in the face of pressing non-farm development.

Focusing mostly on land threatened in the mid-Atlantic area of the East Coast, Thompson helped craft purchase-of-development-rights programs in Pennsylvania, the state that leads the nation in the amount of farmland preserved, and in Montgomery County, Md., which leads the nation in the amount of land preserved by a county. Montgomery County has purchased development rights on 60,000 acres of farmland.

A lawyer by training, he led AFT’s effort to get the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program into the 1996 federal farm bill. That law now provides nearly $100 million a year for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements.

He has lectured and published about conservation policy and property rights and has negotiated dozens of land conservation transactions around the country.

Armed with those credentials, he moved to Davis, Calif., to take on the biggest challenge in his career.

The mission: To save some of the world’s best farmland, the source of America’s winter fruits and vegetables, in a state where it seems everybody wants to live, where population is growing by 600,000 people a year and farmland is being lost at the rate of 50,000 acres a year.

“There are only five Mediterranean-type growing regions in the world, and we’re one,” Thompson said.

Not only does the combination of mild rainy winters and dry sunny summers make California a paradise for production of fruits and vegetables, it makes it a people magnet.

A big difference between California and eastern states, Thompson said, is the nature of the pressure on the land. People are pouring into California from outside. In the East, “lifestyle changes” are redistributing people from “hollowed out,” decaying cities into suburban settings. The population in the East is moving but not growing. In California, there are more people every year.

“The population pressure is enormous,” he said. “You can’t stop it. The question is, ‘How are we managing it?’ The answer is, ‘Not very well.'”

Many of California’s fertile valleys are under pressure, and some are resisting better than others. The grape growers of Napa Valley have, by careful zoning, kept development at bay, Thompson said. Marin County, the home of AFT president Ralph Grossi, has used purchase of development rights to curb non-farm development.

Most of California’s major urban areas were once surrounded by productive farmland, Thompson said. Los Angeles County was the leading agricultural producer in the United States until around 1960. The Bay Area region now called Silicon Valley was, until even more recently, a landscape of peach, plum and cherry orchards known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight.

Saving the Central Valley

Now, people from the developed coastal cities are overflowing into California’s Central Valley, and that’s where AFT is hoping to put on the brakes.

Central Valley is 300 miles long and 50 to 80 miles wide, containing 19 counties and 6.3 million acres of irrigated farmland producing $13 billion a year of farm goods, Thompson said. That’s more farm output than the entire state of Illinois and almost as much as Indiana, Michigan and Ohio combined. It is as much as the farm output of 10 Northeast states. The Central Valley produces about half of California’s $30 billion farm output, the nation’s largest, Thompson said.

Although he lived on the East Coast until moving to California in early 2005, Thompson and AFT became active in the western state several years ago. He helped draft the state’s right-to-farm law and legislation establishing the California Farmland Conservancy Program. He orchestrated AFT’s 1995 study “Alternatives for Future Urban Growth in California’s Central Valley,” which is the benchmark for its efforts since then.

The report can be found at one of AFT’s Web sites, www.farmlandinfo.org, which also contains state-by-state reports on farmland preservation efforts across the United States. The report is continuously updated and has become a key referent for the AFT effort in California.

During the 1990s, according to the study, the Central Valley’s population grew by 784,000 – a 20 percent increase – and urban development claimed 97,000 acres of farmland. A disproportionate amount of the land developed was the region’s highest quality farmland, Thompson said. It was developed inefficiently, consuming an acre of farmland for every eight new residents.

About $100 million in annual agricultural production capacity was permanently lost, according to the study.

While rapid population growth is the driving force, Thompson said, state and local policies exert a powerful influence and largely determine the direction and type of development. Though the state bears a share of the responsibility, it is local policy, especially land-use plans and their implementation, that seems to have the greatest impact.

Some of the problems Thompson named are:

•Environmentalists and farmland advocates aren’t on the same side of the preservation issue, as they tend to be in the East. California environmentalists seem more concerned about wildlife and hills, failing to speak up against development on the flat farmland of the valley floors.

•There is a relatively low appreciation for issues of food security, he said, not only in California but in the United States. California agriculture, it seems, is more important to the country than it is to the state itself, but federal policy on land use is virtually non-existent and farmland preservation is a state and local issue.

•”Local communities have been beggared by Proposition 13 (which caps property taxes), leaving them with only two ways to raise money,” Thompson said. “They can make developers pay for infrastructure but not for the ongoing services. The communities try to attract large retailers so they can get a piece of the sales tax. Proposition 13 was absolutely devastating to good government. It led to the fiscalization of land use to raise revenue to pay for basic services. Because of the way the cards are stacked, politicians have a hard time saying no to developers.”

Acres for Everybody

But Thompson is convinced that California can both save its unique farmland and make room for people. Like most states, California is not wall-to-wall farmland. Less than 28 million acres of land is in farms, out of nearly 100 million acres total. So far, AFT estimates 413,000 acres of farmland have been converted for developed use.

But, he said, it will take political will to channel development and save farmland.

The AFT report is somewhat optimistic that can happen.

Last fall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commissioned a task force called the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley to address the economic, environmental and social problems confronting the region – among them land use, according to the report.

“More recently, the eight councils of government in the San Joaquin Valley joined forces to develop a blueprint for smarter growth in the region … Four valley counties and several major cities are in the process of updating their general plans, and others are actively considering policies to address ranchettes, farmland mitigation and urban infill.”

A federal mandate for cleaner air will almost certainly require the kind of changes in land use – more compact, efficient, community-oriented development – that can not only prevent smog from getting worse, but also save taxes and farmland.

“All of these fairly recent developments offer hope for the future – if the public holds its leaders accountable for making the changes that are necessary,” according to the report.

Ideas for Change

The solutions to sprawl in the Central Valley are as varied as the reasons it is occurring, according to the report.

A new state law calls for state agencies to invest in more efficient urban-centered development that avoids the best farmland.

State policy reform is needed to change the way schools are located and built.

“Schools are a powerful magnet for residential development, but are now exempt from local government land-use rules,” according to the report.

“State tax laws that force cities and counties to compete for revenue by opening their doors to almost any and all commercial development – fiscalizing land use – must be changed.”

Policy reforms at the state level would make it easier for city and county officials to exercise effective local control over development. Local governments, according to the report, need to:

•Avoid development of the best farmland by using tools most cities and counties have.

•Develop land more efficiently, using less acreage through innovative design.

•Promote urban infill, transit-oriented and mixed-use development that reduces traffic congestion, air pollution and public service costs.

•In the rural areas, discourage development of the 5- to 20-acre ranchettes that are spreading over the valley floor as well as its foothills.

•Once a basic land-use plan has been created, stick to it. Frequent changes embolden developers to pressure officials to approve pet projects that are inconsistent with the rules. In reaction, surprised and angry citizens fight back against virtually all development, beneficial or not. And farmers are tempted to become land speculators instead of champions for agriculture.

Local Battles

Even well-meaning efforts to preserve farmland can generate more heat than light. In Monterey County, for example, two sides are locked in combat over what is called the General Plan Initiative. The basic idea is to create five land classifications: Cities, community areas, rural lands, agricultural lands and public lands.

Development would be channeled into cities and five community areas, with no subdivision or intensification of use of agricultural or rural lands for 25 years.

The plan has drawn heated opposition from many groups, including farmers and agribusiness.

The major problem is that the land designations create winners and losers in land values, stripping development value from some land without anyone paying for it.

While AFT has found that planning and zoning can work, purchase of development rights has been the big tool.

As the East Coast states have found, it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to save land in even a small state like New Jersey. California is many times larger, and the $32 million it has raised in bond money is a scratch on the surface.





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