The ongoing debate about how to preserve farmland along with the economic base and food resources that agriculture creates for this county, as well as the nation, is healthy and necessary. However, I feel that the debate needs to occur within a much larger framework.
Thus far, the debate has been too narrowly focused on whether or not to impose 1:1 agricultural mitigation on residential growth in the cities in the same manner that the County Board of Supervisors has adopted in its own General Plan for residential growth in the unincorporated area. One-to-one agricultural mitigation means that for every residential acre developed an acre of agricultural land must be placed in a perpetual agricultural easement.
In my view, the debate needs to be broadened to take a more comprehensive and flexible approach to agricultural mitigation that preserves farmland while providing adequate affordable housing for our growing population and facilitating economic growth to provide good-paying jobs for our residents.
There are a range of possible solutions that can help to preserve farmland in this county. The staff report presented to the Local Agency Formation Commission recently outlined several options as did the presentation made by the American Farmland Trust. For example, one of the approaches highlighted by the American Farmland Trust is to increase development efficiency (i.e., increase densities so that less land is used).
The City of Turlock is currently engaged in an update to its General Plan that could significantly increase the density of residential development in Turlock. For example, the existing General Plan, adopted in 1993, proposes that the southeast portion of the city's planning area be developed at between 4 and 5 dwelling units to the acre. If the new plan is adopted, that same area would grow at approximately 8 units to the acre. Thus, the city would accommodate approximately 60 percent more people on the same amount of land if the new plan is adopted later this year. This is a significant step toward preserving farmland and is as effective as imposing a 1:1 agricultural mitigation fee. Any policy adopted by LAFCO should be flexible enough to allow the city to move forward with future annexations without imposing an additional 1:1 agricultural mitigation requirement.
From my perspective, we are missing a very important piece of the development puzzle in this discussion; the continued conversion of farmland to commercial and industrial uses immediately outside city boundaries and spheres of influence under the current county growth policies and zoning which are not subject to LAFCO review.
Measure E, which requires voter approval for any change in county zoning from agriculture to a residential designation, addresses only residential growth in the county. The county is essentially free to allow commercial and industrial development under its own rules and there has been little willingness or interest to control this type of growth despite the fact that farmland is being converted to an urban use. In order to stop this type of growth, it will be necessary for the county to work with the cities to develop a process and policies to stop this practice.
While I completely understand the need to have distributed agriculturally related industrial services in areas that are not well served by an existing city, continuing to allow development in areas that are well-served by cities undermines our collective farmland preservation efforts and encourages sprawl. In Turlock, we continue to see the conversion of agricultural parcels close to the borders of our city, often to avoid higher development impact fees. The fees in the city are higher because the city has fully accounted for cost to provide the urban infrastructure and services that commercial and industrial uses require. By locating just outside the city, these businesses gain an economic benefit from improvements made to city infrastructure and services that are made possible by the higher city fees paid by other businesses that choose to locate in the city.
Urban development on city borders do not share in the cost of the city service demands they use and contribute no future revenue to the city for the ongoing services that are required. Continuing to facilitate this type of growth results in the premature conversion of farmland and undermines the city's efforts to achieve more compact and efficient development patterns. While we continue to discuss agricultural preservation strategies, it is important for us to look comprehensively at the problem and the solutions, and to establish a process that involves the cities and the county working together to fix a fiscal and policy structure that facilitates wise and sustainable urban development.
As Mayor, I and our council have taken a firm stance on protecting Turlock's borders. I applaud council member Amy Bublak's stand at the recent LAFCO meeting and her efforts to stop the exploitive and damaging development patterns that are a part of the history of our county. This has been my focus in the meetings with all of the mayors. Urban development belongs in the cities where sewer, water, transportation and essential services are ready for new development.
In addition, we need to work together, on a countywide basis, to end the inequitable distribution of property tax dollars, currently at about 11 percent, and receive at the minimum the state average, about 21 percent.
I, the council and the City of Turlock are open and ready to reach an agreement with the County of Stanislaus to stop urban development on our borders and to work on equitable treatment in property tax that stays in our county. Without such an agreement in place, cities have no choice but to try to protect their borders in any way possible, such as identifying urban growth area boundaries that are much larger than prudent or necessary, in order to protect the quality of life for the citizens of Turlock. When this logic is applied to every city, it becomes clear that what is best and fair for the cities will improve the quality of life and help to preserve farmland for our entire county.