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Lawsuit: General Plan doesn't go far enough to protect ag land

POSTED November 21, 2012 12:57 p.m.

Turlock’s newly adopted General Plan looks to preserve the city’s agricultural heritage, while preparing for an expected influx of new residents over the next 20 years.

But the City of Turlock is now facing a lawsuit from a Davis-based non-profit, charging that the city’s new General Plan does not go far enough in its quest to protect agricultural land.

“Stanislaus County has a conservation easement program,” said Eugene Wilson, head of the California Clean Energy Committee. “Why does Turlock refuse to adopt one?”

Turlock Planning Manager Debbie Whitmore acknowledged the lawsuit at the Nov. 1 meeting of the Planning Commission, but declined to speak further on the subject. At the time, Whitmore stated that Turlock hoped to settle, a sentiment echoed by Wilson.

“We’re attempting to settle it,” Wilson said.

The California Clean Energy Committee first entered the multi-year process to draft Turlock’s General Plan on July 20, when representatives submitted a 14 page list of 48 concerns in response to the plan’s Environmental Impact Report. Alongside the concerns, the committee submitted a petition of 60 names, asking Turlock to incorporate the changes.

Though the comment was, at times, supportive of Turlock’s efforts, it called for further meaures regarding agricultural conservation, energy conservation, greenhouse gas reduction, and other environmental issues.

“We recognize and commend the city on its leadership on environmental issues,” the letter reads. “Based on a careful review of the proposed general plan and the EIR, there are a number of areas where either environmental impacts should be more carefully evaluated or feasible mitigation measures should be adopted. The EIR should be revised and recirculated.”

Turlock planners responded to every committee point through the EIR process, in a 12 page response of their own. The document apparently appeased the committee on most points – but not ag mitigation.

“The city’s farmland mitigation policies are inadequate, ineffective, and unenforceable,” the EIR complaint reads. “… The general plan should provide for creation and adoption of a farmland conservation impact program by ordinance.”

The city’s EIR response argues that Turlock’s proposed strategy of compact, phased development would be successful in limiting the conversion of farmland.

“The proposed compact development pattern is expected to be an effective tool to minimize the loss of agricultural land, and will be enforced through the City’s review process for new development,” the city response reads. “… The expansion of public infrastructure is limited to planned growth areas, a fact that has contributed to the city’s lack of leapfrog development and success in farmland preservation.”

 

 

Plan, county call for ag preservation already

Throughout the process to draft Turlock’s General Plan, planners made preservation of farmland a priority.

A smaller growth alternative was selected than initially proposed, which will convert 1,015 acres of farmland to city. That’s well below the 1,950 acres the “preferred” General Plan alternative would have used, and fewer acres than even Turlock’s previous General Plan called for converting.

Additionally, a phased growth plan was adopted, which prevents the city from expanding to new areas until old ones are built out. And Turlock also established what can effectively be termed an urban growth boundary, setting long-term expansion limits for Turlock.

But the committee would like Turlock to include a farmland mitigation program similar to that in unincorporated Stanislaus County. That program, first approved in 2008, requires developers to purchase agricultural conservation easements of an equivalent number of acres to the quantity of acres being developed, permanently setting the land aside for farming.

The Building Industry of America challenged Stanislaus County’s ag mitigation measure in court, but the law was upheld by a court of appeal.

The Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission – the organization which determines how cities may grow, incorporating previously undeveloped land – has since adopted an ag mitigation program of its own. As of Sept. 29, LAFCO requires cities to either set aside conservation easements when they apply to annex land, or have voters approve growth boundaries which limit expansion for a certain period of time.

Those LAFCO rules would apply to Turlock’s future expansion, but do not govern industrial and commercial growth – only residential.

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