Preserving Agricultural Land in the Monterey Bay Area

Preserving Agricultural Land in the Monterey Bay Area

For those of us who grew up on the Central Coast, a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area used to be a grand adventure. Not too many years ago, Highway 101 hugged the coast range as it meandered through the small valley towns of Gilroy and Morgan Hill and the farms south of San Jose. The road wound past orchards dense with blossoms in the spring and in summer, past family fruit stands selling their produce. Nancy Garrison, Farm Advisor for Santa Clara County, says the Santa Clara Valley was the premier fruit growing area in the world at that time. Today urban development has paved most of that rich land and growing fruit is generally a hobby pursued by backyard orchardists. The region once known as the "Valley of our Heart's Delight" has been renamed for a common element--silicon.

The Monterey Bay area and the Santa Clara Valley share a number of similarities. Both were blessed with rich soil and benign climates. Both could grow a great diversity of crops. The food grown in these areas helped feed California and the rest of the world. Today the Monterey region can do this; Santa Clara cannot. And, like the Santa Clara Valley, the Monterey Bay area is experiencing increasing urban pressures and loss of prime agricultural land.

Today there is essentially no farmland left in the Santa Clara Valley. The question is, should we or can we allow this same thing to happen in the Monterey Bay area.

The current situation in the Monterey Bay area is serious. Many of the problems are ongoing, but the negotiations surrounding the city of Watsonville's attempt to annex surrounding prime farmlands and convert them to light industry have sharply focused the issues.

What's at risk is the future of the Pajaro Valley. Many feel the Pajaro Valley is now the world's premier fruit growing region. Its range of micro climates, produces a rich diversity of plants. Growers consider it a horticultural treasure.

Jeff Rosendale, owner of Sierra Azul and Rosendale's Nursery in Watsonville, estimates that between his and the nurseries of two other colleagues in the area, they raise five to six thousand different varieties. He says, "Beside growing fruits, vegetables and flowers, we can grow plants indigenous to the Mediterranean region and to Australia. This is truly a unique growing area."

The Salinas Valley, long regarded as the world's salad bowl, is another vital agricultural resource. The cool weather row crops grown in that long valley are shipped across the country and around the globe. The less fertile slopes are being planted in vines and the wine from the region is making a name for itself. However, the valley is feeling increasing urban pressure. Housing developments are being built on good farmland north of Salinas and farther south around Soledad and Chualar.

One thing that may help slow urban sprawl is agriculture continuing to be big business. The report entitled, "State of Monterey County 1998," just released by LandWatch, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting better land use planning in Monterey County, states, "Agriculture remains the largest sector of Monterey's economy. Gross sales of agricultural products totaled $2.2 billion in 1997, a 17 increase from 1996."

At the same time, the loss of agricultural land to urban development is a growing concern. LandWatch reports, "Since 1982, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has redesignated 1,968 acres of farmland to urban uses. Of the 7,520 dwelling units approved yet unconstructed, 68 will be built on farmland. All these units will be built on farmland within cities."

"Of the 7,880 dwelling units under consideration but not yet approved, 61 would be built on farmland with 24 in cities and 37 in the unincorporated areas. Close to 4.6 million square feet of commercial/industrial development--either approved and unconstructed, or pending--would be built on farmland."

One of the primary causes for this trend is economics. Brian Rianda, Trustee and chief force behind the Monterey County Agricultural and Historical Land Conservancy, Inc., is a lifelong resident of Salinas and a real estate agent specializing in farm and ranch sales. In his experience, if a parcel of agricultural land is rezoned for residential use at five units per acre, the value can increase as much as ten fold.

The possibility of profits like these can be a tremendous incentive to attempt rezoning. The issue then becomes one of finding ways to keep the land in agriculture. The Conservancy has used a variety of means to preserve land, including Federal income tax deductions, reduced estate tax liability, property tax advantages and outright purchase.

Population growth is the other key factor leading to urban sprawl. LandWatch reports the population of Monterey County has increased 33 since 1988 and is projected by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG) to grow another 39 by 2020 to a total of over 536,000. Santa Cruz and San Benito counties will also be experiencing tremendous growth.

The issue will be how to achieve a balance between population, economics and preservation of farmlands. Some of the most active groups and individuals currently working on the problem are as follows:

Landwatch, established in 1997, states it is "dedicated to improving the quality of life through land use planning, citizen monitoring, policy development and public education." The group's efforts are confined to Monterey County. Landwatch is quickly becoming the most important watchdog in the area, especially since the release of their "State of the County" report in May 1998.

Landwatch welcomes members. All donations are tax deductible. Levels of support include Student at $15, Friend at $25, and on up. Mike DeLapa, President of the Board of Directors, has been instrumental in starting the organization. Donna Kaufmann is the office manager.

Landwatch can be reached at: P.O. Box 945, Pacific Grove. CA 93950. (831) 375-3752.

The Conservancy, founded in 1984, is designed to protect prime growing properties in the Salinas Valley and environs. The Conservancy, with the help of the Packard Foundation and Proposition 70, the California Wildlife, Coastal and Parkland Conservation Bond Act, has purchased and preserved the 192 acre Armstrong Ranch north of Marina and the 60 acre Azevedo Ranch in Elkhorn Slough.

The funds from these leases provide the economic base that allows the Conservancy to hold easements on other properties or make future purchases. The group also has close to 3,000 acres under easement.

The Conservancy isn't actively seeking members at this time. Instead they are looking for landowners who would like to preserve their agricultural land while receiving tax benefits or other financial incentives and who could use some help accomplishing this.

The Conservancy can be reached at P.O.Box 1731, Salinas, CA 93902. (408) 422-5868.

The Packard Foundation has played a very important role in preserving agricultural land on the Central Coast and intends to provide even more significant leadership in the coming years. The Packard Foundation has made the commitment to spend $175 million in California for land preservation over the next five years. Annually they will distribute $30 million for land transactions and $5 million for policy and planning.

Their areas of greatest focus will be the Sierras, the Central Valley and the Central Coast. Locally they will emphasize the preservation of agricultural land and hope to help keep it in private hands. Salinas and Pajaro will be high priorities.

Mike Mantell, California Coordinator for Conservation can be reached at the Packard Foundation, 300 Second St., Los Altos, CA 94022. (650) 948-7658.

C.A.F.F. is a statewide nonprofit established approximately twenty years ago to encourage "family scale agriculture, care for the land, and to help sustain local economies and encourage social justice." The local chapter is based in Santa Cruz. C.A.F.F. has created adjunct organizations, including:

The Farm Network provides a setting for farmers in the Santa Cruz, Hollister, Salinas and Watsonville areas to share pertinent information, much of it about better ways to farm biologically. The public can attend their meetings.

The Futures Network grew out of the proposed annexation by Watsonville of approximately 1,000 acres of prime agriculture land. The Futures Network received a $25,000 grant from the Packard Foundation to undertake an inventory of all vacant agricultural parcels of land and under-utilized buildings in the unincorporated areas in the greater Pajaro Valley and in the cities of Pajaro and Watsonville.

The Futures Network wants to get a clear picture of lands that have the potential for development and to encourage the community to be involved in the planning process for their future use. The group's goal is to avoid urban sprawl, especially onto agricultural land and wetlands.

Members of the Futures Network now include the City of Watsonville, the Santa Cruz Farm Bureau, the real estate community, C.A.F.F. and the Watsonville Wetland Watch. These representatives of agricultural, environmental and planning groups have been able to meet and hear each other's concerns in an open forum.

The study has expanded to include research on employment/ unemployment patterns, demographics on where people working in the community actually live, and on what industries are appropriate to the area and how to attract them--in short, the group is creating a comprehensive overview that will provide the background for sound planning.

The Network's report of their findings is due to be released June 15, 1998. All monies for this study, with the exception of the initial Packard grant, have been raised from donations. At this time, the group is actively seeking $20,000 to complete their funding.

All inquiries about or contributions to any of these three organizations can be directed to: Reggie Knox, Regional Coordinator for C.A.F.F. at 735 Chestnut St., Suite C, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Phone 457-1007, Fax 457-1003.

The campaign, is a grassroots organization that also grew out of Watsonville's annexation efforts. The group's goal is to deal with immediate events while developing long term solutions to community needs for housing and jobs without jeopardizing farmlands and wetlands.

Currently Watsonville is hoping to expand its sphere of influence by annexing 212 acres of prime agricultural land in the Riverside Drive area. The city would like to use this land for light industry. Opponents, many of them from the unincorporated areas, feel that such valuable growing land should remain in agricultural use.

The issue went before L.A.F.C.O. (Local Agency Formation Commission) who rendered a compromise decision that pleased no one--94 acres were granted to Watsonville with conditions that the city not expand its boundaries west of Highway 1. Watsonville didn't like these conditions and proceeded to sue L.A.F.C.O. and there the issue currently rests.

This group welcomes volunteers. All inquiries should be made to Sam Earnshaw, the Director, P.O. Box 2965, Santa Cruz, CA 95063. 471-9915.

SOAL is a newly arrived environmental group created to fight the installation of a biotech goat farm on prime farmland approximately five miles north of Santa Cruz. S.O.A.L. feels that the 1600 resident goats, who will provide anti-bodies for cancer research, should not have been allowed on prime growing land and do not constitute an actual agricultural use. On May 21, 1998, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance allowing the farm to remain. S.O.A.L. has vowed to fight on and Santa Cruz Biotechnology, the goat farm's official name, must now submit a master plan to the Supervisors.

Jodi Frediani is the founder and can be reached at 426-1697. Jonathan Wittwer, former chief deputy of Santa Cruz County Council, is the secretary. His phone number is 475-0724. S.O.A.L.'s address is 365 Lake Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

The message to be gained from the efforts of these groups is that those of us living in the Monterey Bay Area are poised on the brink of our own future, a future that will be of our making. Hopefully, with vigilance, we will be able to avoid "Santa Clarafication," because as Lester Brown said, "We have not inherited the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children."