The Farm Bureau wants the General Plan to ease up with the regulations and recognize a farmer's right to build houses.
Thursday, May 16, 2002
Photo by Richard Pitnick; in an effort to preserve farmland in the South County and elsewhere, the draft General Plan makes it harder to subdivide farms into residential lots. The Monterey County Farm Bureau wants the plan scuttled
Chris Bunn, president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, knows the magic words to scare South County farmers and ranchers: put "property rights" and "General Plan" in the same sentence.
"We are on HIGH ALERT!," reads a recent Farm Bureau newsletter article written by Bunn. "Your property rights are at risk! Whether you own a large ranch or a small hobby farm, WATCH OUT for the General Plan Update process."
In rural South County, property rights are as sacred as the right to grow crops and the right to own a dog. The Farm Bureau spokesman says the draft General Plan takes away property rights-by proposing public recreation trails on private property, by limiting grading on slopes and hillsides and by promoting city-centered growth rather than allowing the conversion of farmland into subdivisions. They say the plan makes it more difficult and costly to farm, and doesn''t allow for reasonable growth.
But environmentalists and land-use activists say the property rights battle cry is only a diversion tactic.
Steve Craig of the Ventana Conservation and Land Trust says the Farm Bureau and some South County landowners have an ulterior motive: "Slowing down the process ''til Butch Lindley is seated. That is a consensus goal of the Update opposition."
The General Plan Update is slated to be approved by the Board of Supervisors this fall, before incoming South County Supervisor Lindley takes office in January 2003. Many big ag companies and landowners expect Lindley, a Lockwood vintner and grower, to lend an understanding ear to their wants. They paid for his $87,000 campaign, and he''s a staunch property rights advocate.
But Farm Bureau executive director Bob Perkins, a Lindley supporter, wants more than to stall the plan.
"The ideal thing for the county would be to basically throw this thing out. The short version is [the General Plan] is going to make it very much more difficult for people to farm in Monterey County," Perkins says. "There will be a lot of problems for agriculture-certainly added cost. Habitat conservation is a big one. That would open the door for endless regulation of everything that people do on a farm."
According to the plan, private landowners, including farmers and ranchers, must develop a Habitat Conservation Plan before they conduct activities on their land-whether it''s planting row crops, grazing cattle or building houses-which might incidentally harm an endangered or threatened species.
For farmers, this may mean they can''t use pesticides or herbicides, or that they can''t build on ecologically sensitive land.
"Keep in mind that farming operations coupled with the widespread use of DDT nearly caused the extinction of both the California Pelican and the Bald and Golden Eagles," Craig writes in a letter to the Planning Commission. "While the ''right to farm'' is an embedded policy in most California General Plans with a strong agricultural constituency, the ''responsibilities of farming'' should also be recognized."
Craig points out that a habitat conservation plan is simply required by federal law.
While the Farm Bureau directs much of its criticism at the Plan''s perceived harm to farming operations, Bunn clearly is concerned that it will make ag land more difficult to convert to residential developments.
"Ecologically sensitive areas, scenic viewsheds may curtail and even limit the future use and development of your property," he wrote in the Farm Bureau newsletter.
"This restriction is not a conflict with property rights," Craig replies. "It is a regulation which prevents abuse of the land."
Craig and other environmentalists say the Farm Bureau''s goal is to protect a farmers'' right to subdivide, not to protect ag land.
"The community doesn''t own the land is the first thing," Perkins counters. "There seems to be this attitude that the farm property that is owned by private owners is some asset the community controls.
"The problem is not a desire to develop. The problem is when the burden of business becomes too great."
George Work, a rancher near Parkfield, says he''s glad to see the plan mention agricultural tourism, "and it states right up front that agricultural land is not open space."
But he worries that some of the recommended policies will mean additional hurdles for farmers to jump before growing crops, grazing cattle or leading trail rides on their land.
Work sits on the Bradley/Parkfield Land Use Advisory Committee, one of two such committees in South County. He also worked on the old General Plan 20 years back.
He''s not nearly as ready as Bunn is to completely scrap the plan, nor does he equate property rights with the right to subdivide.
"I just hate to see our industry get in and oppose everything [in the general plan] based on property rights," he says.
But Work says at least one different vocal farmer or rancher spoke up on the importance of property rights at each South County land use meeting. Work says he was surprised to see a property rights discussion absent form the plan.
"Especially in our industry, [property rights] focuses on buying and selling land," he says. "But property rights doesn''t necessarily give you the right to subdivide. I kind of look at it like this: it''s all coming out of one bucket. In order to protect you they might have to take something away from me, or vice-versa.
"There''s no easy answers. You can''t have your cake and eat it too. Whether you''re the county or business person or an agriculturist or a tourist. You can''t have everything."