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Local Agencies Gain Powerful Tool for Preserving Farmland

A program intended to preserve farmland, adopted pursuant to the county's general plan, has been upheld as reasonably related to adverse impacts of residential development on agricultural land by the Fifth District Court of Appeal. In addition, the unanimous three-judge appellate panel ruled the program is not in conflict with a state law prohibiting a local agency from conditioning the issuance of land use approvals on the granting of conservation easements.

In the much anticipated opinion of Building Industry Association of Central California v. County of Stanislaus, the appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling that invalidated the Stanislaus County Farmland Mitigation Program (FMP [pdf]). The FMP had been adopted as an update to the agricultural element of the county's general plan.

In December 2007, the county Board of Supervisors adopted the agricultural element update, which included specific mitigation requirements for the conversion of agricultural land. Under the FMP, discretionary projects that convert agricultural land to residential development must ensure that the converted agricultural land be replaced at a one-to one-ratio with agricultural land of equal quality. The FMP guidelines adopted by the board specify that for a project of 20 acres or more, the mitigation must be satisfied by direct acquisition of a permanent agricultural conservation easement. For a project of less than 20 acres, the county may authorize the payment of an in-lieu mitigation fee.

The local Building Industry Association chapter filed objections to the FMP during Planning Commission and board hearings on the grounds that (1) the county failed to identify its legal authority for mandating the dedication of permanent conservation easements, (2) there is no reasonable relationship between the requirements of the FMP and the adverse public impacts resulting from agricultural conversion (a police power argument), and (3) conservation easements must be voluntary and, thus, cannot be required by general plan policy.

After the county adopted the FMP, the BIA sued and won at the trial court level. The Fifth District reversed that decision.

With respect to the police power argument, the appellate court ruled that the BIA had the burden at trial of demonstrating the invalidity of the FMP, which the BIA did not sufficiently do. The burden of proof was not on the county, the court ruled.

Additionally, the court held that the FMP requirements clearly bear a reasonable relationship to the loss of farmland to residential development. The court cited the goals and policies in the county's agricultural element.

Notably, Justice Herbert Levy wrote, "[T]o meet the reasonable relationship standard it is not necessary to fully offset the loss." Reasoning that land use regulation is a function of local government pursuant to the police power, Levy also wrote, "[T]he trial court erred in concluding that the FMP was not authorized by the county's police power."

Most importantly, the court held that Civil Code 815.3(b) which prohibits a local agency from conditioning the issuance of a land use entitlement on the applicant's granting of a conservation easement in no way invalidates the FMP. In considering this issue for the first time, the court sided with the county because the county's program does not require an applicant or developer to grant the easement.

"Rather, the FMP allows the applicant to arrange for a third party to voluntarily convey an easement to a land trust or the county," Levy wrote.

It appears the court actually was saying something even more succinct: A developer may choose whether or not to develop. If the developer chooses to develop, that is a voluntary decision that comes with a price, such as the permanent protection of one acre of farmland for every acre of farmland developed.

Commentary

This case should not be read as requiring rural cities and counties conducting general plan updates to include mandatory mitigation for the conversion of agricultural land. Whether cities and counties choose to obligate landowners and developers to mitigate for farmland conversions is a local policy determination. Instead, this case provides long-awaited protection for cities and counties that affirmatively choose to employ a farmland mitigation policy.

Furthermore, this case should not be read to conflict with another recent case out of the Fourth Appellate District  Cherry Valley Pass Acres and Neighbors v. City of Beaumont. In that case, a California Environmental Quality Act challenge of a specific plan was filed because the city determined that mitigation for farmland loss was not feasible. The court in that case upheld the city's decision on the grounds it was supported by substantial evidence in the record mainly, that historic and expected trends would eventually result in decreased agricultural land if for no other reason than that the farmers selling are selling land for urban development.

The Case:

Building Industry Association of Central California v. County of Stanislaus, No. F058826, 2010 DJDAR 17864. Filed November 29, 2010.

The Lawyers:
For the BIA of Central California: David P. Lanferman, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, (415) 434-9100.

For Stanislaus County: Matthew D. Zinn, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, (415) 552-7272.

 

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