Farms within Cities Get a Reprieve

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By: Lynn Jensen  

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Aerial Ventura Farmland

In a victory for city farms surrounded by urban development, LAFCo Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt reasonable language to their handbook that requires projects to consider mitigation measures to address the potential loss of agricultural land. Adoption of the amended “Option 3”, proposed by LAFCo staff, would not commit cities to specific, unrealistic agricultural mitigation measures. While Commissioner Linda Parks advocated for a laundry list of measures for cities to “consider and evaluate”, the binding language proposed in Options 1 and 2 had little support by Commissioners, particularly the proposed 1:1 ratio, or greater, for mitigation offsets.

While agricultural mitigation must be evaluated on all development projects that involve the loss of prime farmland, requiring a 1:1 ratio of mitigation offsets through agricultural conservation easements or in-lieu fees would be infeasible due to the high cost of local farmland. Within cities like Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Santa Paula, and Fillmore, this could target projects that have been zoned for development in their general plans. Such plans were created through a rigorous and expensive process that included extensive public participation to balance expected population growth, environmental concerns and economic realities.

Parks assertion that development projects were coming to LAFCo without proper consideration of agricultural mitigation led to a yearlong evaluation, including two public workshops. However, since a court decision in 2013 (Masonite v. Mendocino), project applicants have been compelled to explore mitigation measures for loss of prime farmland. Since this decision, only a few LAFCo projects have triggered such consideration. The most significant was Limoniera’s East Area One project in Santa Paula, approved by a public vote, where mitigation measures for both agriculture and open space were adopted in the EIR.

While agricultural land is an important resource, the patterns of urban growth have been problematic for some farmland: hopscotch development in cities isolating AG parcels, lack of adequate rural buffers, and the building of public schools next to farms. Farmers in these areas are finding, with all of the other unprecedented challenges including water, labor and farmworker housing, that urban conflicts with noise, dust and pest control are becoming insurmountable. In addition, important public projects including facilities and road widenings could have significant cost impacts from strict 1:1 agricultural mitigation policies.

CoLAB called for balance in this decision by the LAFCo Commissioners who rule on boundary changes to cities and special districts in the county. The adoption of Options 1 and 2 would have made it uneconomical for farmland encroached on by urban neighbors to allow for rational planning and conflict resolution.

Historically, Ventura County has been good stewards of the land since long before SOAR’s urban growth boundaries (CURBs) were first imposed in 1995. As we testified, 90% of the population in Ventura County lives on only 10% of the land area. Cities cover only 125,000 acres of the total 1.2 million acres in the County. Because of the strong preservation measures pointed out by Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner, Henry Gonzales, including the guidelines for orderly development and greenbelt agreements, conversion of farmland has largely taken place within the city limits and spheres of influence. Such policies have contained urban growth since 1969.

Information presented at the hearing has shown some farmland conversion to urban uses, 7% over 20 years, described in a letter by John Krist, Farm Bureau Ventura County. The letter also recognizes a significant conversion of hillside lands to productive agriculture over the same 20 year period. Gonzales characterized such conversion as having stabilized the amount of irrigated farmland in the county at roughly 100,000 acres. According to Krist, orchards now make up “nearly half” of the irrigated cropland in Ventura County.

Gonzales also reiterated his previous testimony stating that “Water is the limiting factor, not land” in Ventura County. “Today’s modern agriculture uses substrates and containers.”

But Krist’s letter cited “a misimpression that the County Agricultural Commissioner may have created” with respect to the role of non-soil substrates in crop production. Relegating substrate production to “small amounts”, “requiring significant capital investment”, and “not an option for the vast majority of Ventura County’s commercial growers”, Krist accentuated the role of orchard production as an economic mainstay that will continue to play a role in the agricultural economy for the foreseeable future.

Gonzales refuted that substrate production is largely experimental; emphasizing the important role that new technology will play in local agriculture down the road. Citing Houweling’s Camarillo greenhouse with 125 acres under glass, using 66% less water and powered by solar electricity, the facility has 24 times the production per acre of land. This is a powerful model when considering the need to feed projected increases in federal, state and local populations, not to mention the world.

With almost 2,300 acres of containerized substrate production currently in the county, Gonzales sees this as an important component to leverage the land and “help keep agriculture fiscally sustainable”. In addition, Gonzales recognizes the need for agricultural supply businesses, farmworker housing and processing opportunities to be allowed to support the needs of the evolving agricultural industry.

In the end, CoLAB supported Option 3, adding language to the Commissioner’s Handbook with an omission recommended by Commissioner Mary Anne Rooney, as follows: “For projects that would result in the conversion of prime agricultural land to non-agricultural uses, the environmental document should consider and evaluate mitigation measures to address the potential loss of the agricultural land, as provided for under Government Code Section 65965 et al.” This successful outcome was made possible in part by CoLAB’s vigilant effort to participate in the process and stand up for farms with diminishing options due to encroachment by urban development.