Merced supervisors OK updated general plan

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 10, 2013 

— The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously adopted the first “comprehensive” update to the county’s general plan in 23 years, setting policy for guiding growth and development.

Officials said the seven-year project involved years of public outreach, including 45 community workshops around the county, 24 focus groups to discuss policy areas and nine study sessions open to the public.

The 2030 Merced County General Plan, which can be described as the blueprint for county development, contains 11 elements, including economic development, land use, agriculture, housing, transportation and circulation.

County supervisors commended staff for involving the public in the process but couldn’t agree on one policy change regarding homes on rural parcels. The policy revision, recommended by the county’s Planning Commission, would require residents to obtain a conditional use permit to build homes on rural parcels that have been subdivided.

The policy would apply to any split parcel, regardless of its size. A conditional use permit may trigger the need for an environmental impact review, which could cost up to $50,000, but usually applies to areas where biological habitat concerns exist.

Officials from the county’s Planning Department said the new policy mitigates the impacts of housing on agricultural land, addresses concerns from interest groups and strengthens the review of where rural housing should go.

District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion didn’t agree. He said requiring a conditional land use permit is a costly burden on landowners.

“I’m not saying I want lots of houses in the rural areas, but I think an individual who has a parcel should have a right, and this takes away that right,” O’Banion said, expressing concern that the policy will mimic heavy restrictions placed on the dairy industry.

“We in Merced County are making Mr. (Robert) Klousner (an environmental planner) rich because he’s going to be doing more and more environmental reviews in the future,” O’Banion added, referring to a consultant hired by the county to oversee the environmental review for the general plan.

Bill Nicholson, Merced County assistant development services director, said the new policy is a result of environmental concerns from interest groups – many of which have criticized the county’s approval of rural subdivisions.

In 2009, that scrutiny caused the number of subdivision applications to plummet from 30 to 60 a year to just one or two, Nicholson said. “The idea is we now have a comprehensive analysis to deal with the impacts,” he said. “This is a way to let people have homes within their parcels, but study where they put that home.”

Another topic of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting focused on expanding the minimum size of agricultural parcels from 20 acres to 40 acres – a request made by the public during community workshops.

Several members of the farming community voiced support Tuesday for expanding to parcel sizes to 40 acres, saying 20 acres is more expensive and too small to be used for farmland.

“There is no benefit to agriculture when land is parceled down,” said Stevinson resident Robby Avilla. “Keeping it together makes it more sustainable.”

“The smaller and smaller you break up land, the harder it is to farm organically,” said Rose Marie Burroughs of Burroughs Family Farms.

The county’s current minimum size for agricultural parcels is 20 acres, and the board voted unanimously Tuesday to keep it that way.

District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, chairwoman of the board, said the county needs to focus on the placement of ranchettes and homes rather than parcel size.

“I’ve thought about this 40-20-acre thing for many years,” Kelsey said. “If you see houses popping all over the place, it doesn’t matter if the parcel size is 20 or 40 acres. It’s still inappropriately placed.”

Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, said the general plan approved Tuesday is “the most agriculturally protective” plan in the county’s history because of the numerous policies it puts in place.

Hendrickson noted that the community’s involvement with the plan, which ranged from public comments to letters of support from conservation interest groups. “The public won today because of the number of times they were engaged in the process,” Hendrickson said. “Today was a very good day for the people of Merced County.”

The Merced County Board of Supervisors reviewed several policies as part of the 2030 General Plan. Here’s a summary of the board’s decisions:

Viability of smaller parcels: The board voted in favor of a policy that adds more scrutiny to parcels smaller than 40 acres. This policy ensures parcels are agriculturally viable by using specific standards, such as access to agricultural water, application of pesticides and farm management practices.

Williamson Act exceptions: This policy approved by the board allows people in Williamson Act preservation areas to sell their farmland but keep their homes. The Williamson Act requires maintaining 10 acres of farmland, but this policy allows an exception to the 10-acre minimum by letting people sell portions of their farmland to neighbors through a “convey-and-combine” option.

No new towns in urban areas: The board voted to place protections against establishing new towns on the Valley floor, where the most intensive farming takes place. The idea behind this provision is to preserve prime agricultural land. Officials said this helps avoid negative impacts from growth on agricultural operations.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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