MODESTO — M odestans, it's time to resume the conversation about how to protect the farmland that is so critical to our local economy.
Growth, which dominated the political debate from the 1980s through 2007, hasn't been a big issue in city politics since home values crashed.
Tonight, at the request of Mayor Garrad Marsh, the City Council will start talking about how the city plans to meet the mandate that every city have an agriculture preservation policy. The edict came from the Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission, the little-known body that must approve any city or special district boundary change.
Marsh has long been active in farmland preservation efforts and was a co-author of Measure E, the successful initiative that severely restricts building subdivisions in unincorporated areas. Dave Lopez is the only other member who was on the council during its last intense debates on growth.
There's no doubt that this discussion needs to take place, both to meet the LAFCo requirement but also because the council in 2008 promised to consider a citywide farmland mitigation policy before issuing permits for the proposed Tivoli development, north of Sylvan Avenue between Oakdale Road and Roselle Avenue. The 480-acre Tivoli plan has been dormant since 2008 but there are murmurs of it coming back to life.
The LAFCo policy offers several options to protect ag land and states that cities must use one or more:
Remove ag land from the existing sphere of influence as a trade-off to grow in a different direction. Many of the areas of Modesto's sphere of influence already are in industrial uses (i.e., Gallo and the Beard Industrial District) or older residential neighborhoods (the town of Empire) or in ranchettes. LAFCo exempted from the requirement lands "which are substantially developed with urban uses."
A policy that requires for every acre taken out of agriculture for new houses, another acre is permanently preserved for ag uses through conservation easements or other strategies. This is referred to as the 1:1 ag mitigation. The City Council of Hughson, which is surrounded by prime farmland, adopted a 2:1 ratio, showing its fierce determination to protect ag land. The building industry opposes this requirement on principle, but lost its court case against Stanislaus County's 1:1 ag mitigation policy. The mayor supports this policy.
Having voters approve an urban growth boundary for a specified time period. The Mayors' Working Group hoped to pull a full set of these plans together and put them collectively before voters. It hasn't happened and we no longer think it's realistic politically. There's too much turnover in mayors.
While Modesto is by far the largest city in Stanislaus County, its growth rate has been pretty slow compared to that of Patterson and Riverbank, for instance. Credit for that goes to the late Peggy Mensinger and others who led the charge for required citizen votes before Modesto extends its sewer trunks into new neighborhoods. While the measures were only advisory, the process served its purpose in slowing growth.
So which of LAFCo's options are right for Modesto?
We support 1:1 mitigation when ag land is plowed under for houses. That should apply to the parts of Tivoli and the multi-use Kiernan Business Park that are for residential uses and to future developments. We're not persuaded that the policy should apply to land converted to commercial or business uses.
An urban growth boundary approved by the council in January 2012 just before Marsh became mayor shows Modesto growing north to envelop Salida. Modestans have not had a say in that, and many Salidans have been vocal in opposition.
There's no reason for the council to rush into a decision. There needs to be a thorough and inclusive discussion of all the ag preservation strategies proposed by LAFCo and others as well. There's no more important conversation for our community.
The Modesto council meets at 5:30 p.m. today in the basement of Tenth Street Place.