Stanislaus County on Wednesday became the valley's first to require that cities do something to protect dwindling farmland when requesting annexations.
Its growth-regulating agency voted 4-1 in favor of the rules, which were opposed by most of the county's nine cities, a property rights group and some business advocates.
"Agriculture is a big deal," said Jim DeMartini, a grower, county supervisor and member of the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission. "We have to take some steps to preserve some of it."
Commissioners brushed aside objections of some cities, whose representatives said the policy will give county leaders an unfair advantage and unjustly enrich select farmers.
"Each community has its unique characteristics. A one-size-fits-all (solution), we believe, is problematic," said Patrick Kelly, Modesto's planning manager.
Attorney: Helps my business
George Petrulakis predicted that land use attorneys such as himself would get more work as clients try to figure out how to comply with the rules.
"You can collapse an economy by continuing to consider more laws, more regulations and more policies," he said.
Jeff Perine of the Stanislaus Property Rights Institute said, "I think (the policy) violates the law."
Supporters of conserving farmland, however, came to the speaker's rostrum in greater numbers.
"I may be the only person in this room who spent time as an adult in the San Jose area in the 1940s," Vance Kennedy said. "At the time, it was like the Modesto area is now, with large orchards and vegetable farms. Now it is all paved over, and its residents are reliant on the Central Valley for much of its food."
Others compared Stanislaus County to Southern California, the nation's No. 1 agricultural area a few decades ago with hardly anything left that's green.
"If there were farmland mitigation policies in San Jose and (Los Angeles), there would still be some farmland left (there)," said Wayne Zipser of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.
Brad Barker of Modesto mocked cities for clinging to a perceived right to continue sprawling over some of the planet's best soil.
"This is a logical next step," said Modesto's Scott Calkins of the policy. "It's time that LAFCo step up and do its part to recognize how important agriculture is to our economy."
Cities' effort crumbled
Commissioners indicated willingness nearly two years ago but held off to allow mayors a chance at proposing a ballot initiative on growth boundaries, a type of farmland preservation. But cities couldn't agree, the effort fell apart and some LAFCo members said it's just as well because it appeared some cities would propose unrealistic limits.
Dan O'Connell of the American Farmland Trust said the nine cities have 50 square miles, or 32,000 acres, of developable land in already designated growth areas enough to support historic growth rates until 2041 without annexing a single acre.
Fearful of scaring away commercial and industrial growth and jobs, commissioners specifically exempted that type of development. They also eliminated vague "catchall" language that may have allowed cities to slide by if they adopted unspecified "local policies."
Commissioners sparred over whether cities could comply by having their voters approve growth boundaries, some saying that could invite abuse.
Ultimately, Commissioner Tia Saletta, the only voting member representing the public, cast the sole "no" vote and was overridden by Waterford's Charlie Goeken, Turlock's Amy Bublak, and Bill O'Brien and DeMartini from the county.
O'Brien predicted that LAFCo would see very few residential annexation requests, because of the new policy, in the near future.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT HAPPENED: The Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission voted 4-1 for a farmland preservation policy.
WHAT IT MEANS: Cities must demonstrate how they'll minimize agricultural loss before being allowed to grow. Examples include mitigation preserving so much farmland for every acre to be developed or establishment of a growth boundary approved by a city's voters.
NEXT STEPS: When cities apply to annex land, they must produce a preservation plan including the above, plus an analysis of how the annexation might affect farms and how much buildable land the city has.