Ceres ag land lawsuit thrown out on technicality

gstapley@modbee.comFebruary 12, 2014 

— Did a growth-regulating agency err in letting Ceres annex 960 acres without addressing farmland loss?

A lawsuit two years ago raised that question, but it won’t be answered by the justice system because farmland advocates made mistakes in asking it.

Appellate justices on Jan. 28 rejected the lawsuit on a technicality, saying lawyers failed to follow procedure soon after filing it in April 2012.

“We have not decided the merits” of the contention that Ceres should have been required to do something about dwindling agricultural land, three 5th Appellate District judges said in the ruling.

At issue is Ceres’ West Landing annexation between Whitmore Avenue and Service Road, with Ustick Road on the west and Stanislaus County offices on the east. City leaders hope that land someday will house 12,000 people in 3,600 homes, plus a couple of schools and 34 acres of stores.

Members of the Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission approved the annexation in March 2012. At the time, commissioners were close to adopting landmark rules requiring that cities hoping to grow also bring plans to address farmland preservation.

Commissioners reasoned that it would not be fair to Ceres, which had worked four years on its annexation request, to subject the city to such rules. The panel became the Valley’s first to adopt the policy six months later – five months after being sued by Protect Agricultural Land, a loose group of mostly unnamed farmland advocates.

The lawsuit argued that Ceres’ justification for not preserving farmland – essentially, that it couldn’t be done – was not true. LAFCO’s subsequent adoption of such a policy could be viewed as evidence that the lawsuit made a good point.

But the annexation fight ran into problems from the start.

First, annexation opponents should have challenged Ceres’ June 2011 blessing of an environmental impact report within 30 days, or long before LAFCO considered the matter, appellate justices said.

Second, opponents were required to publish notification of the lawsuit and deliver proof of that publication to the court within 60 days, and they didn’t. That’s why Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge William Mayhew rejected the lawsuit after a September 2012 hearing.

Annexation opponents appealed, saying the mistake should be excused. But the appellate court two weeks ago said “no,” in part “because the 60-day period to do so has long passed.”

An even larger annexation request by Patterson involving 1,119 acres stalled a year ago, partly over farmland preservation issues but mostly because of concerns involving road improvements and water and sewer services. Proponents returned in December with a stronger application and a promise for 10,000 jobs, and commissioners gave it a green light.

Preserving farmland was at the heart of a more recent battle involving the Modesto City Council’s vision for eventual development of some of the Wood Colony farming community. A council majority strengthened a commitment to agriculture in part of that area west of Highway 99 but angered hundreds by setting in motion eventual development of stores and businesses nearby.

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

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