New jobs top farms in Stanislaus ag element

The issue of job creation won out over farmland preservation as the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors approved a new agricultural element to the county general plan.

The element establishes a set of rules to govern agricultural land use in the county, and includes everything from farmworker housing to buffers between agricultural and other land uses.

It went into effect immediately after it was approved Tuesday night, although it does not apply to development projects already under consideration, said Ron Freitas, planning director.

The most controversial aspect of the plan was a requirement for developers to preserve an acre of farmland for every acre developed.

The Building Industry Association of Central California and several other groups objected to the provision, for different reasons.

The building industry felt the provision was a violation of property rights, and said it undercut the public's voice on two local growth-limitation measures on the February ballot.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development raised questions about how the provision would affect local housing goals and the county's enterprise zone.

The enterprise zone designates areas of the county to give employers tax incentives for hiring and training employees, and purchasing equipment. The cost of preserving farmland could hamper development of affordable housing and conflict with the enterprise zone goals, the Department of Housing and Community Development said in a letter dated Monday.

The Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance also raised questions about how the provision would affect efforts to bring new employers into the county.

Those concerns caused Supervisor Jeff Grover to oppose the ag element in an initial vote Tuesday. He was joined by Supervisors Dick Monteith and Bill O'Brien in the 3-2 vote against the element.

Exemption swayed Grover

A second motion exempting industrial and commercial development from the ag land preservation provision caused Grover to switch his vote, and the ag element became law.

Grover talked about population projections showing the county having more than 1 million residents by the year 2050. The county needs to generate 150,000 more jobs, he said, and has fallen far behind the pace needed to meet that goal.

Monteith, in opposing the ag element, said the county should be looking at creating new towns on poor agricultural soils, and providing financial incentives for developers to build in those areas.

O'Brien voted against the ag element because it takes away the right of owners of unirrigated pasture land to put a house on a parcel of less than 160 acres. Previous zoning law allowed up to two houses to be built on parcels of 40 acres or more in these areas, called A-2-40 zones.

Most of O'Brien's district in the northeast part of the county is unirrigated pastureland. The new rule takes away the right of parents to give a young adult child a 40-acre parcel to build a house on the family ranch, O'Brien said.

The new restriction addresses concerns about the spread of rural subdivisions or ranchettes. The ranchettes eat up large portions of farmland without supporting a viable farming operation, according to ag element proponents.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who has shepherded the ag element update over the past two years, noted that agriculture is a $2 billion industry in the county. Without protection, the county will wind up like Santa Clara County, DeMartini warned, with little ag land left.

County staff was instructed to review the changes and reconsider the farm preservation provision for non-residential development at a future date.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.

  • WHAT IT MEANS: The element establishes a new set of rules for agricultural land use, including requiring buffers between ag and non-ag uses; mitigation for the loss of ag land to residential development; helping promote and market agriculture in the county; provide housing for farmworkers; and several other provisions. The farmland mitigation does not apply to commercial and industrial developments, however.
  • WHAT'S NEXT: The agricultural element became effective Tuesday night. Opponents of the farmland preservation provision could challenge the element in court.
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