National leaders in farmland preservation learned Sunday of efforts in Stanislaus County to keep sprawl at bay.
The board of the American Farmland Trust heard about ballot measures that direct housing to less productive soil and about requirements for at least an acre of preserved agricultural land for every acre annexed to a city.
Veterans of the land use battles told of pressure over the past four decades from the building industry, which went through a few booms and busts while farming generally prospered.
“Clearly, you’ve decided that the better use is agriculture here, and that’s a big hurdle to get over,” said Ralph Grossi, a Marin County rancher who spent 23 years as president of the trust and now is its interim leader.
The group, based in Washington, D.C., announced Sunday its support for a Nov. 3 ballot measure in Modesto that would require a future vote for development to the north, west or south, except for a zone near Salida.
The board visited with Jake Wenger, a nut grower and Modesto Irrigation District director, before meeting at the downtown headquarters of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. The trust’s annual meeting is Monday in Sacramento.
Sunday was the first board gathering for member Gina Gallo, a third-generation leader of E.&J. Gallo Winery in Modesto. She succeeded her brother, Tom Gallo, at the trust. Their father, Bob Gallo, was on the board previously.
“Everyone here is passionate,” Gina Gallo said afterward. “The Central Valley is the best in America for food – 230 different products that are planted here.”
Gallo, who now lives in Napa, recalled growing up in a Stanislaus County that had much less development, including the homes built for Bay Area commuters in recent decades.
The meeting came five days after the release of the county’s 2014 crop report, which estimated gross farm income at a record $4.4 billion.
“Our county is bigger than 20 other states in the U.S.,” said Wayne Zipser, executive manager at the Farm Bureau. “It’s quite remarkable what we do.”
The growth debates go back at least to the late 1970s, when Modesto started to put major sewer extensions before voters in advisory measures. More recently, voters countywide decided to require a vote of the people before unincorporated land is developed for housing.
Hughson Mayor Matt Beekman said residential growth costs much more in public services than it brings in taxes, compared with other types of development. His city requires 2 acres of preserved farmland, rather than the 1-acre standard set by the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission, which rules on annexations.
Beekman served on LAFCO until July, when a majority of other mayors ousted him over his vote on fees that builders can pay toward farrmland preservation.
Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said his city is among the densest in the Valley thanks to ag preservation, and it has enough room in its current growth boundaries for a doubling of the population.
“I ran on a platform of build up, not out, and I’m still there,” said Marsh, who is seeking re-election next month.
Officials noted the county’s right-to-farm ordinance, which protects farmers from complaints about noise, dust and other impacts. Homeowners get a reminder of it in their property tax bills.
“Maybe it doesn’t smell so good,” Supervisor Jim DeMartini said, “but these are typical farming operations, and we have a right to farm our ground.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385