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Opinions wanted on Modesto ag preservation policy

Builders and farmers can make their case this week on whether Modesto should adopt an agricultural preservation policy to offset the impacts of new development.

The City Council was on course to adopt one by default in February when it was set to vote on approving plans for Tivoli, a proposal that could yield as many as 3,200 new homes north of Sylvan Avenue.

Tivoli's original plan would have required developers to pay a fee whenever they build on prime farmland in the 472-acre area. The council stripped that stipulation from the plan, saying it wanted more time to form a citywide ag mitigation policy.

Modesto officials want to set that policy by the end of this year, a time line that would keep Tivoli's builders on the hook for whatever standards the city adopts.

Modesto Planning Division Manager Patrick Kelly said he wants to use this week's hearing to gather opinions from people who would be impacted by an ag mitigation policy. He said the city does not intend to show a draft proposal at the meeting.

"We'll just see how it evolves," he said. He plans to hold a second public hearing in September.

Builders are gearing up to fight farmland preservation fees.

"If farmers feel it's important to place their land in conservation easements, then there's nothing stopping them from doing that," said Steve Madison, chief executive of the Central California Building Industry Association.

"If it's a matter of public policy for the community, then everyone should pay for the policy, not just new development," he said.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors late last year adopted an ag mitigation policy that requires builders to pay a farmland preservation fee when they propose residential developments. The policy exempts industrial projects.

Madison's organization is trying to overturn that policy in court and at the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Councilman Garrad Marsh is a strong proponent of an agricultural mitigation policy. A small builder himself, Marsh has said developers "don't have an empirical right to build."

Other council members have not put their views on the line as clearly as Marsh. Mayor Jim Ridenour has said he anticipates forming some sort of ag policy, but not necessarily the one that was advanced in the Tivoli plans.

The hearing on ag mitigation is at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Alliance Free Enterprise Center, 1020 10th St.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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