A lively debate on how best to save farmland appears headed toward a final showdown July 25.
Prospects seem dim for a unanimous decision by members of the Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission. At a two-hour hearing Wednesday, all seemed committed to preserving agriculture, an economic backbone for the area, but they disagree on a strategy.
Most contentious is mitigation, or requiring that cities permanently preserve a set amount of farmland elsewhere for every acre to be developed, when requesting LAFCo permission to annex land. The county has a similar policy when developers want to build homes in unincorporated areas.
Also getting attention is the idea of having voters decide urban limits around each city. The county's nine mayors pushed for such an initiative but the effort stalled when Oakdale and Patterson balked.
Bill O'Brien, a LAFCo member and county supervisor, said people in each city still could vote on growth boundaries despite the mayors' failure. Any city approving a reasonable limit would be exempt from other rules, such as controversial mitigation, he said.
"I'm a firm believer in the power of the people," O'Brien said. He added that voter-approved rules is the only way to "tie politicians' hands" or insure that a policy can't be changed when new officeholders with different philosophies get elected.
LAFCo Chairman Charlie Goeken, who is mayor of Waterford, liked that idea. "If Newman approves something, who am I (on the other side of the county) to tell them no?" he said. "Where it needs to be is with the people."
Efforts called 'useless'
But Jim DeMartini, a county supervisor, said growth areas proposed by cities before the mayors' initiative collapsed were ridiculously large, defeating the purpose of saving farmland. He called such efforts "absolutely useless."
"It's saying you're doing something, but you're not," said DeMartini, a farmer and longtime mitigation supporter.
Hughson Councilman Matt Beekman said land-use issues are incredibly complex and urged commissioners not to shirk duties of leadership. But he is an alternate member and could only vote in July if a commissioner representing a city were absent.
Amy Bublak, a Turlock councilwoman and voting commissioner, said little other than to recommend taking time to develop a sound policy.
The other voting panelist, public member Tia Saletta, did not show her hand.
Options to mitigation and urban limits include greenbelt buffers, paying fees and encouraging higher densities, or some combination.
The debate is closely watched by many with high stakes in the issue, including the Building Industry Association, the Farmland Working Group, farmland easement trusts, various cities and irrigation districts and a Lutheran church with rural land that could be developed.
Newman City Manager Michael Holland told commissioners, "Shouldn't local communities decide if they want a growth strategy? They're the ones that have to live with it."
Bee reporter Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.