I attended the March 25 Stanislaus LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) meeting. At that meeting, staff proposed a methodology that would act as a guideline for calculating a minimum in-lieu fee amount for a proposal to fully fund 1-1 mitigation in the county. It puts one more option on the table for the cities in Stanislaus County to choose from. The commission addressed the issue of “fully funding 1-1 mitigation” when the city of Patterson was ready to vote for a 1-1 mitigation fee of $2,000 – this amount would not “fully fund” 1-1 mitigation – the fee must be sufficient to acquire a conservation easement on an acre of comparable farmland in the county.
Six cities submitted letters (not including Hughson, Turlock and Modesto) in opposition to the amendment and each had incorrect facts supporting their arguments. While staff was available to answer questions and explain the methodology, the cities chose to be misinformed. The City of Oakdale wrote, “To date, there have been no indicators showing the current policy is not fulfilling its purpose of preserving agricultural lands. In fact, this policy is very comprehensive and provides clear guidance on available methods to permanently preserve agricultural land.” This is an incredibly lofty statement, as the city of Patterson clearly didn’t understand “fully fund 1-1 mitigation.”
A letter written by the California Building Industry Association stated, “the proposed mitigation policy would artificially increase the price of agricultural conservation easements.” There is no evidence that backs this. Bill Martin, Executive Director for Central Valley Farmland Trust, addressing the commission during public comment, stated that not only does easement value not rise under such conditions, as farmland values increase, conservation easement values tend to go down.
Ed Thompson, California Director for American Farmland Trust, submitted a letter stating… “LAFCO has ample authority to adopt such a policy as a means of fulfilling its legal mandate to conserve farmland. A policy such as this that applies to all cities in the county will level the playing field, so that no city may gain what it may perceive to be a competitive advantage by taking a less robust approach to conserving farmland. In any event, that advantage is likely to be small, given that even the highest current farmland mitigation fee appears to be but a small fraction of the average cost of new housing – as well as of the gains to be made by those who develop farmland.”
The cost of the average home in Stanislaus County, estimated to be $220,000, would be increased by one-half of one percent or $1,042. This is using the current average of 7 dwellings per acre in the county. The Stanislaus Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy calls for 11 dwellings per acre and the mitigation fee would add $663 to the cost of the dwelling or about 3/10 of one percent. While this is an added cost, without permanent farmland preservation, the land will continue to be viewed as land waiting to be developed. It is doubtful this modest increase would slow the housing market that appears to be heading toward pre-recession numbers.
The role of LAFCO must be considered. LAFCO is the last line of defense in protecting agricultural land and open space and promoting orderly growth. The commissioners who sit on LAFCO are not selected to balance the panel so that developers have a voice. The commission was established to protect the people of California from the high cost of sprawl and the associated loss of farmland. It is the responsibility of the commissioners to uphold the goals of LAFCO. It then becomes extremely important for the commissioners to read and understand the Memorandum prepared by staff. It was disheartening to hear some commissioners make statements that were misleading, obviously having not read the clearly written staff-report.
The Memorandum packet had an overview of the proposed amendment to Policy 22 – Agricultural Preservation Policy, as well as a Proposed Policy Amendment that explained the In-Lieu Fee Methodology. The last section of the staff report was extremely informative and answered many of the wrong assumptions presented in the letters submitted by six of the cities in the county. The mayors of those cities are now proposing that Commissioner Mayor Beekman be removed from LAFCO because he voted for the proposed amendment with Supervisors DeMartini and Withrow, passing 3-2.
In closing, it was clear that Mayor Beekman was one of the most informed members of the commission. It is also clear that Mayor Beekman sits on the commission to uphold LAFCO’s goals and mission. In that respect, he is first, and foremost, a voice for the public. All the commissioners should follow Mayor Beekman’s example and serve for all the right reasons, one of the most important being to protect agricultural land… hopefully, for the long-term.