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Agricultural preservation policy stands
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Stanislaus County's policy of requiring an acre of agricultural land to be preserved for every acre developed for housing will stand.

The California State Supreme Court last Wednesday refused to hear an appeal made by the Building Industry Association of Central California to a ruling of the Fifth Appellate District of the Court of Appeal. The BIA challenged a Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors mitigation policy - passed by a 3-2 vote in 2007 - that requires developers of new residential subdivisions to permanently set aside an equal number of acres for agriculture by buying or contributing toward ag easements.

The BIA immediately went to court in an effort to overturn the county decision. The case drew the interest of many organizations statewide representing both interests. Parties interested in the outcome included the development community, farm advocates, environmentalists and other counties.

The BIA argued that the Farmland Mitigation Policy violates the restrictions in Civil Code section 815.3, which specifically prohibits an agency from conditioning an entitlement on an "applicant's granting of a conservation easement." The court held that the FMP complied with this provision because, under the county's scheme, an applicant is not charged solely with granting an easement on its own property, but could also acquire it from a willing seller.

A developer is required to acquire such easements from willing sellers in most cases, although for developments less than 20 acres in size compliance may be through payment of an in-lieu fee.

A lower court reasoned that the loss of developed farmland is permanent, and the preservation of comparable land does not result in new farmland to replace the lost farmland. It also considered that while ag land is a finite and irreplaceable resource, it is also subject to development pressure to provide affordable housing near jobs. The county plan is fair, the courts ruled, because it balances those competing demands, to allow some residential development to go forward, but assuring that at least half of the ag land in the county is preserved in perpetuity.

The Court of Appeals ruled in November that the county ordinance was legal after a local judge ruled that the county's action was unfair to home builders and was unconstitutional. The Fresno court said there is wisdom in preserving agriculture at a governmental level.

The ruling does not affect housing proposed within city boundaries. Nor does it affect the 2008 voter approval of a 30-year plan that requires any proposed subdivisions in unincorporated areas of the county like Keyes, Empire, Denair and Hickman to first be approved by the voters. That voter initiative is effective through Dec. 31, 2036.

As of 2006, Stanislaus County was sixth among California counties in total agricultural production at about $2.1 billion. Despite the efforts of local government and organizations to preserve Stanislaus County's agricultural heritage, nearly 6,500 acres of farmland or grazing land was reclassified to non-agricultural use from 2004 to 2006.

At least one family agricultural property in Stanislaus County has been permanently set aside for agriculture. The Mengetti Farm, a 155-acre walnut and almond orchard three miles west of Modesto on Highway 132 and two miles from the Modesto's Sphere of Influence cannot be developed for residential. The Central Valley Farmland Trust (CVFT) holds the agricultural conservation easements on the farm, eliminating the possibility of it being subdivided. The property owners retain full control of all farming operations and land-management decisions.

The California Farmland Conservancy Program provided funding to create agricultural easements on te property, with additional support from the Modesto-based Great Valley Center. Stanislaus County granted $238,987 from a mitigation fund established in 2005 to offset farmland lost by the creation of a Kaiser medical campus in north Modesto.