It's probably true that the Modesto City Council erred when it removed the farmland mitigation requirement from the Tivoli project in east Modesto.
As others have noted, suspension of the mitigation clause looks bad and is a bitter reminder of past practice, when other projects garnered public approval through hype and misrepresentation.
Nonetheless, despite its allure, mitigation might not be the panacea we would all wish it to be. Back in the 1980s, conservationists enjoyed a brief but intense fling with wetlands mitigation. At the time, it was touted as perhaps the only way to save the valley's remnant wetlands, over 90 percent of which have been lost to farming and development.
Fairly early on, lovers of wetlands realized that mitigation might not be able to fulfill its early promise. For one thing, wetlands generally function better when they are contiguous and distributed according to nature's plan. Removing them, filling them in and walling them off tend to make them less effective and productive -- even when "mitigated."
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Farmland mitigation involves many of the same issues and problems. Consider Salida, where developers want to build houses. Experts say Salida has some of the best, most productive soil in the world. How much farmland of this quality is even available for mitigation? And why should farmland of lower quality be accepted in mitigation?
Every farmer knows that once development occurs near a farm, farming gets harder. New neighbors in tract homes complain about odors, dust and pesticides; farmers don't like increased traffic and people who don't recognize property lines. These are just a few of the issues that must be dealt with when residential and commercial development begin to crowd farms.
None of this means mitigation should be discarded as one way to deal with the loss of farmland and-or wetlands. But many of those who've thought long and hard about the loss of these resources have come to the conclusion that it would be far better to preserve those resources as they are rather than to begin a "tit-for-tat" program that is more complex than it looks on the surface.
The valley has lots of land that is not particularly good for farming. Those whose houses are built on Modesto's famous hardpan soil are more than willing to attest to the obdurate impermeability of the stuff. It might make for a good foundation for houses, but it's not good for crops. Doesn't it make more sense to build away from the good farmland than on it?
The problem is that no one wants to be zoned out of the possibility of striking it rich, but this dream has always been predicated more on opportunism and wishful thinking than on sound reasoning.
Zoning is a long-accepted way of accomplishing wise land use, and given our recent experience with the costs and consequences of rampant development, it makes less and less sense to replace productive farmland with burdensome houses and strip malls.
Long ago our most visionary citizens began to talk of regional planning. Unfortunately for us all, this idea has been slow to catch on. Nonetheless, unless we come up with a land-use plan soon, we might find that our precious valley resources have been mitigated to death, along with any hope for a livable region.
Caine, a Modesto resident, teaches in the humanities department at Merced College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.