Stanislaus County's smallest city has taken the lead in farmland preservation, adopting a policy with twice the oomph as the county's mitigation policy and becoming the first of the nine cities to meet a new requirement for this kind of preservation.
Last Monday, the Hughson City Council gave final approval to a farmland preservation program that requires the permanent protection of two acres of farmland for every acre that is converted to housing. That protection can be achieved through conservation easements payment to assure that the farmland stays in agriculture uses or other strategies.
The Hughson policy is modeled after the county's ag land mitigation measure, which passed on a 3-2 vote by supervisors in 2007 and withstood a legal challenge by the Building Industry Association. The county policy also only applies to land that is converted from farming to residential use. Conversions of land for commercial or industrial development do not have to offset that loss.
This ag land mitigation requirement was controversial when it was considered by the Board of Supervisors, but in Hughson, there were no objections and it was unanimously supported by the five-member council, according to Thom Clark, the city's community development director.
There are no annexation requests pending in Hughson. The city simply wants to show its commitment to preserving ag land. Clark said Hughson is thoroughly ag oriented. The biggest employers are ag-related, the townspeople are ag-oriented, as evident with the pickup trucks that line the street.
Perhaps even more important, Hughson is surrounded by prime farmland. The city is encroaching on prime soil no matter what direction it grows. That's not the case for most of the other cities in Stanislaus County. Modesto, for instance, has encouraged growth to the east think Village I and, someday, the Tivoli development north of it because that soil isn't as good as what lies to the north and west.
Other city councils will have to address farmland preservation because last fall, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) decided that it won't approve annexation requests from cities that don't have this type of policy in place. The bench mark is an acre saved for an acre lost, known as a 1:1 mitigation. (Hughson's is 2:1.)
Cities were given an option to get around the mitigation mandate: persuade their voters to approve growth boundaries limiting expansion of their cities for a certain time period. So we can expect to see this discussion on every council agenda eventually, at least before they can annex new areas.
The Modesto council is likely to discuss an ag land mitigation proposal in March, according to Community Development Director Brent Sinclair.
Meanwhile, Hughson, a city of 6,800 residents and 2,000 households, has the distinction of being first to act and it went beyond what was required. We applaud their farmland preservation program.