Stanislaus County farmland protection upheld
County can require set-aside for homes
By Garth Stapley - email@example.com
Stanislaus County can require that home builders permanently preserve farmland equal to acreage needed for new subdivisions, three appellate justices ruled Monday in a dramatic reversal of a local judge's ruling.
"Once it is urbanized, productive agricultural land is permanently lost," acting presiding Judge Herbert Levy wrote in a unanimous decision hailed as a victory for farmland preservation.
The Building Industry Association of Central California, which sued the county over its "farmland mitigation program" and initially won last year, is not likely to appeal to the California Supreme Court, executive vice president Steve Madison said Monday. He said he sent county officials a congratulatory note.
Modesto Bee - DEBBIE NODAfirstname.lastname@example.org - Aerials taken April 1, 2010. Some of agricultural land in Stanislaus County.
WHAT IT MEANS THE CASE: Stanislaus County's farmland preservation rulewas challenged in court by the building industry. THE RULING: Three appellate justices on Monday upheld the rule on the grounds it can protect vital ag land. THE RESULT: An appeal is unlikely. The county's rule doesn't apply to residential growth in cities.
Other counties and cities have adopted similar acre-for-acre conservation rules. Local home builders challenged the rule, adopted by a 3-2 split vote of county supervisors, saying they believed it to be unfair.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge William Mayhew agreed, saying the requirement was arbitrary, unconstitutional and lacked a reasonable link to negative results of building homes.
Appellate justices, noting that "agriculture is the county's leading industry," had no problem making the link.
"Real estate development that requires agricultural land to be converted to residential use has a deleterious impact on this valuable resource," Levy wrote in Monday's ruling. "Although the developed farmland is not replaced, an equivalent area of comparable farmland is permanently protected from a similar fate."
Third-party land trusts typically monitor farmland easements.
County Counsel John
Doering said, "We're happy that the court seems to have vindicated the county's position."
He said the swiftness of the decision, coming less than two weeks after oral arguments in Fresno's 5th Appellate District, is "amazing." Such panels typically issue rulings several weeks and sometimes as much as three months later.
BIA to pay court costs
The justices ordered the building industry to pay court costs, but not expensive attorney fees. The home builders association already has spent more than $100,000 on the case, Madison said.
"They're to be congratulated, and we'll move on," he said.
Supervisor Jim DeMartini, a farmer and one of three supervisors pressing farmland conservation, said he always felt the county would prevail.
"Everyone should realize that the agricultural land we have is unique," DeMartini said, noting favorable climate, soil and irrigation — the same elements quoted by appellate justices.
"It's not like we can put our land into development and go to some other state to grow almonds," DeMartini said.
The case was closely followed by many with stakes in farming, local government powers, the environment and the construction industry.
But the ruling's reach may not be apparent because voters throughout the county embraced a 2008 measure requiring countywide votes for subdivisions in unincorporated areas. Neither that law nor Monday's ruling affects residential growth in cities, which are more likely to welcome new homes.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.