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Valley growth fuels farmers' land use concerns

Issue Date: May 9, 2007
Kate Campbell

This crop of for-sale signs off I-5 near Newman points to new development in all directions. Rapid-fire development is threatening farmland and straining infrastructure.

With the state's population growing rapidly and developers responding with new housing subdivisions and commercial centers, farmers and ranchers are feeling the squeeze, particularly in the Central Valley. Cities and counties are scrambling to provide schools, roads, hospitals and public safety services—and they're looking for tax dollars to help.

In some of California's most productive farm counties these pressures translate into continuous erosion of the agricultural land base, misuse of land preservation programs like the Williamson Act and conservation easements, and ever-dwindling water supplies.

California Department of Conservation statistics show that between 2002 and 2004, Fresno County lost 11 agricultural acres a day. Kern County lost 9 a day, Merced 4, Stanislaus 8, San Joaquin 5 and San Diego 10. Kings and Imperial both lost the equivalent of 6 acres a day during that period.

Statewide, the Division of Land Resource Protection, a branch of the Department of Conservation, said urban land expanded by nearly 93,000 acres between 2000 and 2002, as documented by the Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program. The very best farmland, an irreplaceable natural resource, decreased during that time frame by nearly 50,000 acres, equal to about 74 square miles.

The state is scheduled in coming weeks to release the latest biennial mapping survey, covering the 2002-2004 period, and farmers and land use experts are bracing for proof of even greater losses of agricultural land.

"When development is plopped down in the middle of agricultural areas, it affects our right to farm," said Russ Felch, who operates a cattle buying business in Newman. "Shortsighted land use decisions make life difficult for everyone and, even though we repeat this over and over again, few in local government hear."

The Public Policy Institute of California found in a special survey of the Central Valley last year that today far more people see the loss of farm and agricultural lands as a big problem. About 42 percent of those surveyed last year said loss of agricultural land was a problem, compared with only 23 percent in 1999.

In 1960, the eight San Joaquin Valley counties had a population of about 1.4 million. By 2030, the population is expected to exceed 6 million.

"We don't have the infrastructure to support that kind of growth," said Felch, who is a director of the California Farm Bureau Federation, representing Madera, Mariposa and Merced counties. "What we have was built in the 1950s and ‏60s."

Like many valley residents, agricultural leaders and community representatives, Felch said he believes there is a need to develop a vision for the valley that is long term and geographically broad. A region-wide planning project, called the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, is now being developed to provide a road map for the region that will help anticipate needs into mid-century.

"This is the time to plan for agriculture to ensure future generations will be able to farm here," said Felch, who also raises cattle.

In the meantime, development up and down the valley continues at a blistering pace.

Madera grape grower Dennis Meisner said, "In our county we have projects coming up for approval now that are the equivalent of 35,000 homes. Our current population is about 50,000 and we've been struggling with one of the highest growth rates in the valley.

"The impacts of that growth today are different than they were several decades ago," said Meisner, who is president of the Madera County Farm Bureau. "For example, you'll see the problems with roads built in the 1950s and 1960s that tie Highway 99 to Highway 41. There's a tremendous amount of traffic cutting over to the highways that also are used for agricultural equipment and work. It's only going to get worse.

"We're looking at multimillion-dollar construction costs just for roads," he said. "I wonder, can the tax dollars these subdivisions generate pay for all of it? But then, look at the farmer who has farmed in the area for the last 50 years, How is he supposed to pay for it?"

Meisner said property owners in his county are paying for five separate bonds, collected along with local property taxes.

"Ag lands already are picking up two-thirds or more of the bill, yet farmers aren't the ones creating the impact," he said. "I don't see how this can go on."

The pressure to develop, the increased need to protect farmland and the interests of those who would shade the truth of their land use to gain a property tax break, have brought greater attention to the Williamson Act and Farm Security Zone contracts.

Farmers and ranchers trying to protect their land and remain profitable have increasingly turned to enrollment in the Williamson Act. The act protects agricultural land through property tax incentives that restrict development under voluntary, automatically renewable 10-year contracts.

As of January 2005, 16.6 million acres were under 10-year Williamson Act protection. Of California's 58 counties, 52 have adopted Williamson Act programs.

Farm Security Zone contracts have been adopted by 25 counties and more than 800,000 acres of agricultural land are being protected through self-renewing 20-year contracts that restrict development. In all, participating local governments claimed nearly $40 million in payments from the state for partial replacement of the foregone property tax revenue due to their participation in the Williamson Act.

Land use experts agree that the act is a valuable tool, but only when counties, and the few participating cities, properly enforce the law. In too many cases, local governments are opting to ignore the requirements of the Williamson Act to pave the way for residential subdivisions.

All too frequently, well-heeled real estate purchasers are buying parcels in agricultural areas—often sized at bare minimums that qualify for Williamson Act property tax advantages—and building large homes, often without so much as a chicken coop in the back yard.

In Madera County, where more than 550,000 acres of agricultural land is enrolled in the Williamson Act or the longer-term Farm Security Zone, more ranchette-size properties are being developed. If the parcels are larger than 10 acres, in the case of prime farmland, or 40 acres for non-prime, they technically qualify for lower property taxes under the land conservation program.

The state Department of Conservation said audits of county Williamson Act enforcement activities continue to reveal numerous abuses of the act and problems with improper uses of protected farmland that need to be addressed through increased enforcement activities and clarification of the statutes.

"Using the Williamson Act to protect farmland and ensure good land use planning decisions can only be pushed so far," said Brian Leahy, state Division of Land Resource Protection assistant director. "Good planning includes all the land, and the Williamson Act is not a way to subsidize the development of ranchettes."

During Farm Bureau's annual leadership conference in March, Leahy told those attending a workshop on changes to the Williamson Act that Assembly Bill 1492, which was passed by the legislature in 2004, creates serious penalties for material breaches of contract for building on land covered by contract.

The department has added two new attorneys and several more people in the field, and Leahy said the penalties in the law are "large enough to get people's attention."

Also, in the works this year is state Senate Bill 634, which will give county boards of supervisors greater guidance as to when a subdivision of land under Williamson Act contract meets the requirements of the Subdivision Map Act.

"Numerous county Farm Bureaus have raised issues when real estate speculators buy large ranches with the intent to subdivide and then sell them off as tax advantaged subdivisions," said John Gamper, CFBF taxation and land use director. "Farm Bureau policy on this subject is very explicit. Land uses that result in agriculture being halted on contracted land clearly undermine the program.

"The biggest threat to the Williamson Act is the creation of rural ranchettes," Gamper said. "Ranchettes were once considered to be 1 to 5 acres in size, but today with suburban real estate values skyrocketing, there appears to be an unlimited market for 40-, 80- and 160-acre rural homesites."

But problems with development certainly aren't confined to the San Joaquin Valley, Gamper said. In Sierra County, there recently was a huge fight with a developer who is pushing for a 1,200-acre annexation to the town of Loyalton, population 850.

"The developer, who is an attorney and serves as the executive officer of the Plumas County Local Agency Formation Commission, is putting that small, rural community through the wringer, Gamper said. "Three local ranchers put their properties into Farm Security Zone contracts to protect their ranches from possible future annexation."

The developer fought the applications for the contracts and is now suing the county because their approval will block his development plans.

"All these ranchers want to do is go from a 10-year Williamson Act contract to a 20-year Farmland Security Zone contract in an already designated agricultural zone," Gamper said. "Farm Bureau has agreed to help defend the county against this frivolous lawsuit."

Gamper said this is just another example of the many actions taking place throughout California where growth and development are threatening agricultural lands and the future of rural communities, which undercuts the ability to provide a domestic food supply for future generations.

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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