A recently adopted specific plan for nearly four square miles in southern Sacramento County represents the first time county officials have instituted a major farmland mitigation program. The East Franklin Specific Plan calls for developers of 2,475 acres to contribute $950 per acre to an account that will purchase agricultural easements or property in a nearby farming area. Whether farm owners will cooperate, however, is uncertain. The mitigation fee is intended to protect about 26,000 acres of farmland south of the fast growing community of Elk Grove, said Sacramento County Supervisor Don Notolli, who represents the area. "Agriculture is important in the history of this community, and it will continue to be in the future," said Notolli. Sacramento County's general plan calls for development of prime farmland to be mitigated with the purchase of rights to prime agricultural land elsewhere in the county. However, the county had not implemented the policy for a major development since adopting the general plan in 1993. Whether or not the $950-an-acre fee will provide enough money is unknown. But Notolli — who earlier pressed for a higher mitigation fee but eventually voted for the $950 rate — pointed out that the fee will apply to the entire specific plan area, even though only 1,400 acres qualify as prime farmland. "In looking at the calculation, where you have 2,400 acres paying the fees and the loss of 1,400 acres, it's a pretty good number to start with," Notolli said. The Environmental Council of Sacramento, a 30-year-old coalition of environmental groups and individuals, endorsed the East Franklin Specific Plan for several reasons, said ECOS leader Earl Withycombe. First, the East Franklin plan carries out the general plan policy of mitigating the development of farmland. Second, and even more importantly, the specific plan requires the county to purchase agricultural easements in the immediate area of the development. That focus is important because East Franklin is right up against the county's urban services boundary, and pressure could easily build to expand the boundary, Withycombe said. Thus, the specific plan provided a creative approach to preserving the integrity of the urban growth boundary. No one expected extensive development on the urban services boundary only seven years after it was adopted, said Withycombe, who noted a major retail development called Lent Ranch has also been proposed right on the boundary. "It made a lot of sense to us that we were better off forestalling development on lands just across the urban services boundary … until the next overhaul of the general plan, when the issues could be revisited," Withycombe said. Supervisor Notolli said the board decided it could not reasonably offset loss of south county farmland by acquiring agricultural easements in the rural northern part of the county, as some people had proposed. Instead, they focused on an area within three miles of the East Franklin Specific Plan area. Looks good on paper The Sacramento Bee has reported that farm owners near East Franklin have indicated little interest in selling agricultural easements. Instead of preserving farming, they want to preserve their right to sell land to developers. The farmers point out — correctly — that the county has not enforced the farmland mitigation policy for other major developments. Denny Lewis, executive manager of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, endorsed the mitigation fee but said no one can predict its effectiveness. "There's such little experience dealing with agricultural mitigation fees. I have no idea whether the agricultural community will accept this. I suspect they will," Lewis said. "Either we're going to grow houses, or we're going to grow food. And this is a start." The Nature Conservancy has been purchasing agricultural easements along the Cosumnes River watershed, south of Elk Grove, for years. That program has been quite successful, Lewis said. Wine grapes are the number one crop in southern Sacramento County, according to Lewis. Other components of the area's farm industry are dairy, cattle, hay, alfalfa and barley. Sacramento County had $278 million in agricultural production in 1998 (the last year for which figures are available), ranking it 22nd among California's 58 counties, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. State officials estimate that the five-county Sacramento region (Sacramento, Yolo, Sutter, Placer and El Dorado counties) lost 2,800 acres of prime farmland to development from 1996 to 1998. That figure worries open space and farming advocates, but builders say it is a tiny amount that totals only about two-thousandths of 1% of the region's total farmland. Density policy doesn't survive While the East Franklin plan does implement the general plan's farmland mitigation policy, it required general plan amendments to remove four transit-oriented zones from the East Franklin area. Instead, those areas will have single family homes along with some typical apartment buildings and retail stores. County planners say there just is not enough acceptance of high-density, mixed-use planning concepts. (See sidebar.) Indeed, Elk Grove residents lobbied for fewer housing units in East Franklin. As a result, county supervisors approved a plan that calls for far more large-parcel, single-family development than originally envisioned. Although county supervisors approved the East Franklin Specific Plan in late May, what exactly will become of the plan is unclear because the area lies within Elk Grove, which became an incorporated city on July 1. Growth was the number one issue during the incorporation election, with many people contending the county has been too accommodating to developers. Elk Grove Mayor Jim Cooper said it would be unfair for the city to insist on changes to proposals that have already gone through the county process, such as the East Franklin Specific Plan. Supervisor Notolli added, "I don't think our work is going to be discarded." Still, said Cooper, the bedroom community of about 55,000 needs a better balance of growth so that not everyone has to commute to jobs in Sacramento. The new mayor noted that during the last few years, 40% of residential building permits in unincorporated Sacramento County have been issued in Elk Grove. Interestingly, the new East Franklin Specific Plan designates 2,398 acres — nearly the entire specific plan area —for single-family residential development. The plan earmarks only 47 acres for office and commercial, plus 30 acres for medium-density residential. Under the plan, 10,400 housing units could be built. When the Elk Grove City Council convenes for the first time, it will have no fewer than 46 pending development projects to consider, Cooper added. Contacts: Don Notolli, Sacramento County supervisor, (916) 874-5465. Jim Cooper, Elk Grove mayor, (916) 686-2222. Earl Withycombe, Environmental Council of Sacramento, (916) 444-6666. Denny Lewis, Sacramento County Farm Bureau executive manager, (916) 685-6958.