Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Dole out the dough to stop development...here?


Part 1 of a long, long series
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Fight development. Preserve farming values. And...dependence on suburban taxpayers?
Sounds like a plan.
With the rationale of preserving farmland and farming values, a program offering state money to destroy development rights is expanding into Glenn County.
Though the program is supposed to be for the benefit of Glenn County, a majority of supervisors say there's no way they'd support it if Glenn County had to pay for it.
So unless money grows on trees in Sacramento, urban and suburban communities may soon be subsidizing the fight against nearly non-existent Glenn County development.
The Chico-based Northern California Regional Land Trust hasn't been that active in the past, acquiring the development rights to only one property, a 4000-acre chunk of Butte County. Now, they’ve solicited and are processing applications for 15 properties, five in each of Glenn, Butte, and Tehama counties. Two are receiving free appraisals, so far, though the process will take nine to 24 months.
If a piece of property is worth $1 million with development rights, or $600,000 without them, director Jamison Watts said, Sacramento will pay the farmer $400,000 to destroy the development rights.
Formally, the program is funded through the state Farmland Conservation Program.
Mr. Watts has spent time recently educating Glenn County farmers about the program, which is open to farmers with class I and II soils and high-value crops within about 2 miles of city limits. In December, January, and February, he made presentations to the Board of Supervisors, the Farm Bureau, the Resource Conservation District, and the Orland Rotary club.
He ties his project to nothing less than the "disappearance of the family farm."
"Farming and agriculture are a big part of our American heritage that is at stake with conversion of agriculture to non-agricultural uses," he says.
In Glenn County?
From 1990 to 2004, according to figures Mr. Watts cites, only 641 acres of county farmland and pasture were converted to other uses.
That's slightly over a square mile, and, according to county ag figures, less than a third of one percent of county farmland and pastureland.
Think about it this way: if 641 acres disappeared every 14 years, then it would take until A.D. 4104 to disperse half of Glenn County's farmers and ranchers. That's a lot of generations of Soeths, Vereschagins, and insert another example here please, Tim.
(Alternately, if the rate at which farmland disappeared increased at the pace that the county is growing in population – 0.6 percent per year according to census data – half of Glenn County farmland and pasture would be gone in the year 2874.)
Nationwide, says easement expert and UC-Davis emeritus prof. Alvin Sokolow, the pressure for easements has come from suburban, not rural or urban, areas – places where sprawl has eaten up farmland.
But Mr. Watts defends his program.
“Where’s the development going to happen in Glenn County? Orland and Willows. And what surrounds that? High quality farmland.”
When we asked the supervisors, a majority — John Amaro, Keith Hansen, and Tracey Quarne — told us that Glenn County wouldn't do this for itself.
"I'm a farmer myself," said John Amaro. "But there's no way that the county could afford to get a program like that, unless we got state or federal grant funding."
Keith Hansen said that he was all for family farming, but the way to stop development was through zoning, not by having the county pay farmers to destroy development rights.
Tracey Quarne said that while the notion of preserving land was "most worthy," easements block development on land forever.
"The next generation and the generation after are certainly intelligent enough to make informed decisions and do what is necessary to preserve land," he said.
To UC-Davis ag economist and easement proponent Al Sokolow, permanence is the point.
“You can change the zoning at any Tuesday meeting of the board of supervisors,” he says. “Zoning is temporal, subject to change.”
On the other side was Mike Murray, who said he would support such a program, if it could be phased in. He noted that he was concerned about possible future development more than anything happening now.
Tom McGowan replied to our query simply by saying he didn't answer hypotheticals, turning around, and striding briskly away.
So: local politicians aren't willing to pay for Mr. Watts' program, if it's on the county dime.
Is it, then, anything other than a subsidy?
“It is true that there is a certain amount of redistribution” from urban areas to rural and suburban ones, Dr. Sokolow says, but notes that “far more” money is spent each year in the congressional farm bill than the tens of million dollars allocated annually for easements.
And, he adds, easements, unlike zoning, compensate farmers.
"I think every supervisor on the board would support (easements)," Mr. Amaro said. "But not through county funding."

Sidebar: An expert’s view of easements
Dr. Alvin Sokolow has been researching easements for 15 years. He is currently at UC-Davis.
Dr. Sokolow says the drive for easements were part of a sentiment to preserve open space.
“The sentiment comes not so much from agricultural community, not so much from the big city community,” he says. “It comes from the suburban community.”
“They’re more present in areas that have mixed suburban/rural composition,” he adds. “One reason why northeastern states are so keen on them is that they lost so much land to farmland through urbanization and sprawl.”
“They’re closing the barn door after some of the animals have left.”
A key part of easements, he says, is that “property is in such a strategic location that influences a larger chunk of land.”
But for a program that’s just starting out, like Mr. Watts’, “the most important thing is just that a transaction has been successfully completed.”
“Farmers are suspicious of any program stopping them from doing what they want with their land. When an easement program first starts out, it has to be conscious of doing things in a way that minimizes that suspicion. Having one or two successfully completed easements sends a message,” especially if the farmers are highly-regarded and well-known, “that this is a legitimate technique.”
He says programs around the rural north state were different politically than in the suburban northeast, citing the Yolo County land trust.
“That’s a county that has more liberal leanings...the land trust was formed by agricultural leaders with support for city leaders.”
“Davis was first city in the US to pass an ordinance, that for every acre being urbanized, you had to protect an acre.”
He insists this didn’t block development.
“It doesn’t stop population growth. It just puts it elsewhere.”

Mr. Watts and Dr. Sokolow also tie farmland preservation to national policy objectives. That will be touched on at a later point in this series.

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