Local news

Farmland Under Siege From Sprawl

In Northern California, it rained all or part of 27 days in January. After mopping up the mess, weary Californians were drenched again throughout March. The impact of these winter storms stemmed in no small part from California’s long history of converting farmland to residential and commercial uses.

Farmland provides better flood control than other land uses because it allows rain to percolate into the ground. Roads, driveways and rooftops send rain onto low-lying ground like chutes. While the recent, once-in-500-years storms would have caused flooding regardless of land use, more land in farms would have eased the pain.

Much of the land in the Sacramento region, one of the areas hardest hit by the January floods, used to be in farming. Between 1982 and 1987, the Central Valley lost close to a half-million acres of productive farmland, according to a recent Bank of America report on the effects of sprawl.

Urbanization in the form of residential, commercial and industrial development has continued in the 1990s, increasing 29 percent in the Valley from 1990 to 1992.

Nationwide, we lose more than 1 million acres of farmland a year.

Most U.S. cities were originally located where geographic and climatic factors favored farming, America’s oldest industry. Fifty-six percent of all U.S. agricultural products are still produced in urban-edge areas. That means today’s expanding metropolitan areas are threatening some of the country’s most productive farmland.

America has strayed from the age-old ideal of keeping cities as cities, towns as towns and country as country. In the Chicago area, the population grew by only 4.1 percent between 1970 and 1990, but residential land use soared by 46 percent, gobbling close to 450 square miles of farmland. In Pennsylvania, the number of urban residents decreased by 17 percent between 1950 and 1990, while the number of rural dwellers increased by 20 percent.

Four decades ago, Los Angeles County led the nation in agricultural production, scoring $156 million at the farm gate. Today, Fresno County leads the nation in agricultural production with $3 billion in volume annually. But farmland there is also under siege.

We must do more to protect farmland - and reduce traffic congestion, stabilize the cost of community services and avoid a landscape pocked by subdivisions. California has no comprehensive policy on agricultural land use despite being the nation’s top agricultural state. While California’s counties and cities are required to have comprehensive growth plans and the state’s Williamson Act was written to conserve ag land, somehow farmland continues to fall through the cracks.

Local communities can play an important role by implementing protective zoning, adopting land-use plans that limit development and contain urban expansion, and through Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements. Such PACE programs compensate farmers who voluntarily forgo their development rights, thereby spreading the cost of farmland protection and its multiple benefits throughout society.

In the last few years, one California county, Sonoma, has committed to growth management and farmland protection, approving a PACE program and community separator policy that includes urban growth boundaries. The county’s cities are setting guidelines for the location of new residential and commercial growth to ensure sprawl does not overrun the county, blurring city limits and paving over farmland and open space.

While flooding took a toll in Sonoma County, it undoubtedly would have been worse if farmland there had been replaced with the shingled roofs of new homes and the concrete strips of new highways.


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