MODESTO — The Modesto City Council decided Tuesday night not to adopt a farmland preservation policy different from what a growth-guiding agency approved last year.
The council voted 6-1, Mayor Garrad Marsh dissenting, to simply inform landowners seeking annexation about the new policy of the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission.
That body requires that for every acre of Stanislaus County farmland annexed to a city for new homes, another acre is preserved for farmland.
The council could have made the rule tougher for landowners hoping to annex to Modesto, such as requiring preservation at a 2-to-1 ratio for prime farmland.
The council also made it clear that it did not want to apply the LAFCo policy retroactively to recently annexed land. This mainly involves Tivoli, a mostly residential, 400-plus-acre development east of Oakdale Road and north of Sylvan Avenue, which backers said will be on lesser farmland.
The city planning staff will return with a formal policy that spells out these directions from the council.
The issue rekindled a debate over farmland that flared during the housing boom of recent decades, which was followed by a residential meltdown that only recently is showing slight signs of improvement.
Modesto resident Brad Barker said agriculture got the county through the recession that followed the housing collapse.
"I'm just tired of this false choice between the economy and farmland," he said. "That's ridiculous. The farmland is helping the economy."
Vance Kennedy, a retired hydrologist who owns a small citrus farm north of Modesto, said prime farmland is more valuable than the national parks.
"The Central Valley of California is a national treasure," he said. "It's not just a local treasure."
Dave Romano, an engineer who has worked on Tivoli and other developments, said city policies since the 1970s have directed growth to nonprime soil.
Council members opposed to toughening the LAFCo policy noted that Modesto already is dense compared with other cities and that the just-launched review of the general plan will provide a chance to refine farmland rules.
The LAFCo policy can be carried out through conservation easements, in which farmers receive payments from a developer-funded pot in exchange for keeping the land in agriculture.
Councilman Dave Lopez said that policy would add to the cost of new homes. He also said many farms are profitable and there is no need to pay farmers to preserve them.
Councilman Dave Geer said the main threat to farmland is not city growth, but the possible reduction in irrigation supplies so fisheries in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can have higher flows.
"Prime farmland that's fallow is useless," he said.
Marsh said agriculture is especially important to the Modesto economy because it brings in money from around the world, unlike sectors that just move around money already here.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
MODESTO COUNCIL WATCH
The Modesto City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to:
Award a contract to Gillig LLC of Hayward for the purchase of eight buses for use in the Modesto Area Express transit system for as much as $3.9 million. These buses will replace 23-year-old city buses that have exceeded their life spans.
Approve a resolution asking the State Water Resources Control Board to reconsider its draft plan that calls for the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers to divert 35 percent of their flows from February through June each year to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay. Local irrigation districts, farmers and others have decried the proposal, saying it would cause irreparable harm to agriculture and other Northern San Joaquin Valley interests.
Approve plans and specifications for the Jennings Wastewater Treatment Plan improvement project. The total estimated cost for the construction for this project is $1.134 million.