AGRICULTURAL CONSERVATION EASEMENTS
PROTECTING FARMLAND IN THE 21ST CENTURY
By Dave Rosenberg
Yolo County Supervisor, District Four
Yolo County boasts some of the richest soil and best farmland on the planet. As highlighted in a study prepared by agAccess Information Services in August of 1996: "Yolo County occupies a prime location in the midst of Californias Central Valley, one of the riches agricultural regions in the world."
In its entire 150-year history as a County, Yolos economy has been based around agriculture. Our Class I and Class II soils grow tomatoes, wine grapes, alfalfa hay, seed crops, field corn, rice, wheat, nuts, safflower and melons. In addition to being recognized as an important agricultural county, Yolo Countys farms and ranches add much to the unique character of our community, provide important forage for wildlife, and separate our suburban communities from one another.
Lets look at the big picture. Yolo County has 607,228 acres zoned for agriculture. Contrast that with the 29, 107 acres of Yolo County land that is within the city limits of Yolo Countys four incorporated cities and an additional 3,832 acres of land that is within Yolo Countys unincorporated non-agricultural zones (e.g., Esparto, Dunnigan, etc.). So, about 95% of Yolo Countys land area is zoned for agricultural uses, while about 5% is zoned for urban uses like industrial, commercial and residential.
Weve done pretty well over the years in protecting and preserving our precious farmlands. But we should not get complacent. And the question remains: How do we best protect our farmlands from urban encroachment as we head into the 21st Century?
Its an appropriate question to ask in the face of Californias explosion of projected growth.The answer, remarkably, is not overly complex. It just takes public and political will to implement. We are all stewards of the rich agricultural lands around us. In my opinion, preserving Yolo Countys farmland will take a four-pronged approach.
First, there must be a continued commitment to the Yolo Countys General Plan agricultural protection land use policies. I am proud to say that the current Board of Supervisors is unanimously in favor of those farmland preservation policies.
Second, there must be a continued commitment to keep land within Williamson Act contract protection. This Act preserves farmland, and the Williamson Act should be fostered and encouraged in Yolo County. I see a continued commitment to the Williamson Act in Yolo County.
Third, Yolo Countys cities must, at long last, establish urban limit lines. These are General Plan lines beyond which a city chooses not to grow. Three years ago I published what I called the "Yolo County Greenline Plan," urging urban limit lines for our cities, primarily Davis and Woodland. While Woodland years ago developed an urban limit line policy in its General Plan, Davis has not yet done so. Recently, however, some Davis City Councilmembers have begun to actively discuss the urban limit line concept. I am hopeful that all four cities in Yolo County will move toward establishing urban limit lines.
Fourth, and most importantly, is the active use of agricultural land conservation easements. Yolo County is a recognized leader in this endeavor. We must do more.
Easements are legally binding agreements that a property owner can enter into to restrict uses on the property. An agricultural conservation easement allows a farmer to sell (or gift) development rights on his property, thus preserving it for all time in agricultural uses. For example, a farmer might be convinced to sell an agricultural conservation easement on his 100 acre farm for $1,000 per acre (total value of the easement $100,000). The farmer receives $100,000 and he provides the agricultural easement to the County of Yolo, or perhaps to the Yolo Land Trust. These entities hold the easement for the publics benefit, and a "public trust" is thus established.
In fact, Yolo County is a recognized leader in the Central Valley in the creation of agricultural conservation easements. Hundreds of acres have already been preserved for agricultural uses or are in process. We can do more.
To really be effective, Yolo County needs a plan for the establishment of more easements and money to purchase them. Two nearby counties Sonoma and Marin, have well-established, comprehensive plans to guide their conservation easement policy. Yolo County can use these plans as a starting point to develop its own. Careful planning is crucial. We must collectively determine where these easements should best be located.
Money is more complex. Ironically, the price of agricultural land goes up the smaller the parcel. Currently, viable agricultural parcels larger than 160 acres (prime soils and water) sell for about $3,000 per acre. Agricultural land not located on prime soil (e.g., Class III or IV soil) sells for $2,000 - $2,500 per acre. Agricultural parcels of less than 160 cost more per acre. And agricultural parcels of 1, 5 or 10 acres (so-called "ranchettes") sell for $120,000 to $150,000 per parcel. Currently, agricultural conservation easements sell for $850 - $1,250 per acre. The closer agricultural land sits to incorporated areas, the more they (or the easement) will cost. Thats because the hope of urban development boosts the price.
Ultimately, I believe the voters of Yolo County (or perhaps voters of Woodland and/or Davis) should consider a voter-approved bond measure to help pay for agricultural conservation easements. A $2 million bond could help pay for the permanent preservation of up to 2,000 acres! Alternatively, consideration should be given to the creation of a special, countywide agricultural preservation district. Thats precisely what Sonoma County did in 1990. In that year, a countywide election created the "Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District." The voters also approved a 20-year sales tax of 1/4 cent to fund the district. After its creation, the district held public meetings, established a priority plan designating "community separators" (1 to 2 mile agricultural strips between cities) and began the task of purchasing agricultural conservation easements.
In either scenario, public support and voter approval is crucial if we in Yolo County are to preserve agricultural land into the 21st Century.