An acre for an acre: Farmland preservation measure upheld
Before the real estate bust, tract houses were a booming crop in California's farm belt. Parts of the Central Valley were turning into a bedroom community for the Bay Area.
So three years ago, Stanislaus County, which has a $1-billion farm economy, adopted a measure requiring large-scale residential builders to protect an acre of farmland for every one they developed.
This week a panel of the Fifth Appellate District of the state appeals court upheld the provision, overturning a lower court ruling in a decision that could set legal precedent.
“I think there has been some legal uncertainty about how to design a program, and I expect this decision will go a long way in resolving that uncertainty,” said attorney Matthew Zinn, who represented the county.
The provision, which was put on hold by a lawsuit filed by the Building Industry Assn. of Central California, gives developers of fewer than 20 acres the option of paying a mitigation fee or buying mitigation credits.
But the county wants builders bulldozing more than that to acquire farmland conservation easements for an equivalent amount of land.
About 10 California counties and cities have adopted some version of farmland protections, Zinn said. A number of conservation groups filed briefs in the case, concerned about the broader implications of the Superior Court decision against the county.
"The Court of Appeal recognized the county's right to protect farmland as part of its well-established authority to regulate land use," Zinn said.
The building association challenged the requirement on various legal grounds.
"Basically the county has set itself up as a land broker and set the price," said attorney Dave Lanferman, who represented the builders. "Public agencies shouldn't just pick a number: Give us an acre.”