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for people who care about the West

Farmers band together to stave off sprawl

In California's Central Valley, a strategy for steering growth takes shape


MADERA, Calif. - For two months, farmer Denis Prosperi has been working seven days a week. He has a shed filled with two and a half million pounds of almonds that need to be fumigated, packed and shipped overseas to Europe and Japan. It's been a great year for almonds, which is a good thing, since the price for Prosperi's other crop, wine grapes, has dropped dramatically in recent years.

Prosperi owns about 600 acres here in Madera County, the heart of California's Central Valley; his family has farmed here for nearly a century. But during the 1990s, the city of Madera's population jumped by 50 percent, and between 1998 and 2002, permits for single-family homes doubled. Every month, the wall of red-tile roofs marched a little closer, until a row of houses stood across the street from Prosperi's farm. Several years ago, when a developer offered to buy 40 acres from him, it seemed like a good time to sell.

"You just can't farm that close to people," says Prosperi, a short, stocky man in a baseball cap, toeing the black dirt with his cowboy boot.

But Prosperi's farming neighbors were angry about his plans, and began circulating a petition urging the city of Madera not to annex his land. One neighbor, a longtime member of the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve productive farmland, turned to the group for help. "They came to us and asked, 'What can we do to protect our farms?' " recalls the trust's Greg Kirkpatrick. Reluctant to anger his neighbors in this close-knit farming community, Prosperi joined his neighbors to create a "farmland security perimeter" - a new collective approach that could help stave off sprawl up and down the valley.

"The only way (development) is going to stop," says Prosperi, "is if we all agree to stop it."

A growth boundary with teeth

The Central Valley is expected to nearly double in population over the next 20 years. Developers have been paving over about 10,000 acres of valley farmland for new homes every year, and Madera and a string of farming communities are in danger of sprawling together to create a 300-mile long "linear city" along Highway 99 between Sacramento and Bakersfield.

Local governments have struggled for years to contain development by drawing urban growth boundaries, but developers often pressure them into expanding those boundaries.

At the same time, groups such as the American Farmland Trust have tried to preserve agricultural land by using conservation easements to buy farmers' rights to develop their property. Although easements don't fetch as much as selling the land outright, they offer a way to get some money out of the land while keeping it in agriculture.

But on a larger scale, easements don't always work: A farm here and a farm there may be protected from development, only to be surrounded later on by suburbia.

With that in mind, Prosperi and seven other farmers agreed to sell conservation easements on a band of land across the city's west side. The easements, held by the American Farmland Trust, cover just 440 acres, but are the result of the largest group of landowners in the Western United States ever to cooperatively set aside agricultural land to protect it from development, according to the trust's Kirkpatrick.

If it works, this "farmland security perimeter," where much of the city's new growth was anticipated to occur, will protect even more farmland farther West. The easements should make it economically infeasible for developers to run infrastructure - new roads or sewer lines for example - through the protected area.

"I think of it as giving a hard edge to the city," says Kirkpatrick. "This is a line that cannot be encroached upon."

Shoring up the line

It's not cheap. The easements on the 440 acres have cost about $4.5 million, or about $10,000 per acre: Land directly adjacent to the city is worth over $22,000 an acre to developers.

About half the money came from the California Farmland Conservancy Program, a state program that provides grants for agricultural easements, and another million came from the federal Farmland Protection Program. Landowners donated over a million dollars of the value, about half of which they'll make back in federal tax credits.

City planners hope the farmland security perimeter will push growth away from the west side's rich soil to the east, where a layer of hardpan clay makes for poor farming. Madera city planning director Larry Red says some of the growth will also be redirected inward as "infill."

But the plan will only work if the buffer is thick enough and wide enough to make the cost of extending infrastructure to the far side uneconomical. "It's like going onto a medieval battlefield with a cardboard shield," says Dave Herb, Madera County's planning director. "You need to beef it up."

In an effort to do that, the trust is working with other landowners to expand the perimeter from 400 acres to over 2,000 acres, effectively sealing off the entire western edge of Madera * an effort that will ultimately cost about $10 million.

Meanwhile, the group is also expanding its campaign to other fast-growing valley communities along Highway 99. In Delhi, 150 acres owned by four neighboring farmers have already been protected with easements. In Riverbank, Merced and Fresno, appraisals have begun, and easements could be put in place in the next two years - ideally, before land speculation drives the prices too high, says the trust's Kirkpatrick.

"We are working against the clock," says Kirkpatrick. "If we wait too long, we may lose these opportunities."

The author covers the environment for the Sacramento News and Review.

You can contact ...

  • American Farmland Trust:National Office, 202/331-7300; California Regional Office, 530/753-1073; Southern San Joaquin Valley Office; 559/627-3708; www.farmland.org;
  • California Farmland Conservancy Program, Chuck Tyson, 916/324-0850, www.consrv.ca.gov;
  • Madera City Planning Department, 559/661-5430, www.cityofmadera.org/planning.htm.