By Scott Spear, Interim Executive Director, Sequoia Riverlands Trust
Earlier this week, the Visalia City Council adopted a General Plan Amendment eliminating an important protection for agricultural land threatened by development. The Amendment, which was adopted over the objection of conservation experts, environmental justice advocates, and a wide cross-section of the community, repeals the requirement that new developments in the City’s outer tiers provide for the permanent protection of the same amount and quality of farmland that they convert to other uses.
From the City of Davis to the City of Tulare, California’s agricultural communities use farmland mitigation requirements to balance growth with the need to conserve irreplaceable natural resources. This approach maintains greenbelts between cities and neighboring communities, and protects the quality of life that attracts new residents in the first place. Such mitigation requirements incentivize compact development while providing funding for land trusts and willing landowners to permanently protect farmland. They are all the more essential in the San Joaquin Valley, where groundwater scarcity and the resulting regulations may lead to the retirement of hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land, making it critical to conserve high-quality farmland that remains viable.
SRT is disappointed that the City of Visalia has chosen to deprive itself of this valuable policy tool, particularly since the General Plan Amendment offers no comparable measure to incentivize farmland conservation or avoid leapfrog development. As Councilmember and former Mayor Greg Collins pointed out, zoning alone provides very little protection, because all it takes to change is three City Council votes. Once that occurs, other cascading negative impacts to subregional agricultural economies follow, including cumulative losses to related agribusiness such as box/crate manufacturing, equipment sales and service, and nearby skilled labor. The cities of Los Angeles County—once many distinct communities in a predominantly agricultural county, and now a single conurbation stretching from mountains to sea—provide a cautionary tale in this regard. Closer to home, rapidly-merging communities such as Fresno and Clovis offer case studies in negative ag land impacts.
Visalia has always prided itself on good planning and orderly development. It has long sought to maintain green spaces between itself and neighboring communities. The recent General Plan Amendment is a departure from this tradition, and for the sake of current and future Visalia residents, we hope that the City Council will reconsider.