Homes chew up farmland
Some of the best farmland in the nation is beneath Central Valley communities, including Sutter County.
“What's discouraging is that 80 percent of the land developed there was high quality farmland,” Edward Thompson, Jr. of the American Farmland Trust said Wednesday of Sutter County from1990 to 2000.
The trust released a study showing development is gobbling up Central Valley farmland.
“Though local land use plans are well-intentioned, the best farmland is being paved over the fastest,” Thompson said. “It's a waste of a precious resource.”
Of the 11 Central Valley counties mentioned in the study, 53 percent of all land urbanized in the 1990s (97,000 acres) was high quality farmland. Colusa and Yuba counties weren't included.
Sprawling growth means the average valley resident uses twice as much acreage as a Bay Area urbanite. One acre of land was developed for every eight new residents. Sutter County was less efficient, averaging 6.5 people per newly urbanized acre.
But some development trends and policies have changed in the past six years, said Sutter County Supervisor Larry Munger. For example, spheres of influence, defining where cities will expand, have been adopted.
“If we can keep (development) in the sphere of influence, we prevent them from chopping up ag land outside of the city,” Munger said. “You have to sacrifice some land to gain a lot more.”
Yuba City's sphere expands west to Township Road, adding 10 more square miles to the current 13-square-mile city area.
Rice and walnut farmer James Marler said some of the best agricultural land in Sutter County is bound for development.
“Unfortunately, it's right around Yuba City's sphere of influence,” he said.
Marler, who serves on the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau, said it's increasingly difficult for landowners to pass up developers' offers.
“We're looking at the economics of the industry. There's been light demand for crops grown here, like peaches and prunes.”
Marler said he'll be farming until he can't work anymore, but he understands why a landowner would sell.
“When developers are willing to pay premium prices for ground, they can find willing sellers.”
Colusa County Farm Bureau President Mike Doherty said counties generally do not discourage developing on farmland.
“Counties have their own crisis,” he said. “And the next generation isn't returning to farm. Farmers can only hold on for so long.”
Doherty said ranchettes are the biggest development threat to farmland.
“They're cutting the heart out of agriculture,” he said.
Ranchettes are generally large homes in the country on small pieces of land. In rural Sutter County, a small piece of property is about 10 acres. Doherty said those 10 acres can be trouble for farmers and neighbors.
“Maybe they could afford the house and land, but aren't able to farm. So now you have a nuisance parcel that grows weeds,” he said.
According to the study, ranchettes are the most inefficient type of development and drive the price of farmland beyond what farmers can afford.
Thompson said if counties and cities do not start encouraging more efficient development, the Central Valley will reach a tipping point.
“The political will to change becomes harder everyday the status quo prevails,” he said.
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Appeal-Democrat reporter Eve Hightower can be reached at 749-4724. You may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.