Update on Stanislaus County ag policies falters

gstapley@modbee.comApril 30, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

— Stanislaus County leaders failed to strengthen farmland preservation rules after a contentious hearing Tuesday, putting into limbo a 16-month effort to update an important policy document.

Some leaders expressed frustration at technicalities that at the last minute prevented them from participating.

"Democracy did not work well there today," County Supervisor Terry Withrow said after the meeting.

Supervisor Dick Monteith, the only one of the five supervisors who doesn't own farmland, suddenly found himself in control of the county's agricultural element when the agency's lawyer said the others have conflicts of interest and should not vote.

Using a last-resort exception, the other four drew straws, allowing two to weigh the matter with Monteith. But passage required that all three agree, and Monteith refused to compromise on the farmland issue or any other portion of the ag element revision.

The sticking point is mitigation, or a requirement that developers permanently preserve elsewhere an acre of farmland for every acre to be sacrificed for new housing. Supervisor Jim DeMartini wants power to set aside more acreage in some cases, while home builders prefer reverting to no restrictions.

The rule initially squeaked by on a 3-2 vote in 2007. County Counsel John Doering said different rules of participation apply this time because of a new component addressing rural windmills and solar plants, and a related vote could affect property tax breaks afforded to farmers.

DeMartini and Withrow drew short straws Tuesday and left the room, leaving Monteith to deliberate with Board Chairman Vito Chiesa and Supervisor Bill O'Brien. The latter two could not get Monteith to budge from insisting that an ag element revision address the state's new laws regarding greenhouse gas emissions.

Planning director Angela Freitas said the county's general plan, a document guiding growth, is being updated and portions other than the ag element will address emissions.

Chiesa and O'Brien, hoping to salvage some of the ag element proposal, tried to separate mitigation language from noncontroversial parts such as food safety, encouragement for a groundwater ordinance, solar and wind energy and using recycled water for irrigation.

"I want to take the whole thing as one, or I will not vote for any," Monteith said. "I believe it's important to come up with a solid program rather than picking out the easy (portions)."

Withrow and DeMartini said they were frustrated at not being allowed to engage and asked if the issues could be packaged separately in a future meeting to allow full board participation. For example, the disputed mitigation proposal by itself likely would not disqualify any of the supervisors, Doering said after the meeting.

"I didn't like the way it went down," DeMartini said. "There is a need for the public's business to get done. If four board members have to step down, you wind up with no ag policy."

Despite strong convictions about mitigation on all sides, its merits were mentioned little Tuesday. The county already can ask, or a developer can volunteer, to preserve more than one acre for each acre developed, officials say.

Also, a law embraced in 2008 by voters across the county, called Measure E, guides almost all new housing away from rural land and into cities, rendering moot most of the mitigation debate. Leaders prefer to make a stand as a matter of policy, Chiesa asserted.

In other matters, supervisors unanimously:

• Adopted a new rule making it harder to create smaller home lots in Knights Ferry and La Grange historic districts. Neighbors were upset when a developer prevailed in court and subsequently won supervisors' approval last year for such lots overlooking the Stanislaus River near Knights Ferry.

• Approved a plan by Gallo Glass to expand a storage area and parking lot on land bought from adjacent property owners. Some neighbors objected when planning commissioners reviewed the project in March, expressing fears of noise, more traffic and lowered property value. DeMartini abstained from voting because he sells grapes to the company's winery division.

• Moved elections for five school districts from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years. The Hughson, Newman-Crows Landing, Salida, Stanislaus Union and Waterford districts fear lawsuits from groups promoting minority representation. A report said moving to a busier election would add length to ballots and voter pamphlets, increasing combined costs for the five districts from about $26,300 to as much as $53,400.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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