Agriculture

BL Special Report: What are agricultural easements, and do they preserve San Benito County’s rural character?

Mitigation measures ensure certain lands are cultivated in perpetuity.

This is the third in a three-part series about prime agricultural land in San Benito County. Read Part One and Part Two.

Drive along Highway 156 into Hollister, and you’ll be greeted with the rolling hills of the San Juan Valley, the verdant fairways of San Juan Oaks Golf Club, fruit stands and rows of lettuce, spinach, garlic, raspberries and blackberries.

It’s anyone’s guess what this drive might look like several decades from now, but one thing is certain: 68 acres of land will be growing crops.

Back in the mid-1990s, the developers of San Juan Oaks had an idea. While the golf course wasn’t going to be built on prime agricultural land, it was surrounded by it. In order to discourage additional development in the area, project manager Scott Fuller arranged for an easement on a 68-acre plot of prime agricultural land adjacent to the golf course.

An easement is an arrangement whereby a property owner relinquishes certain property rights, which are then transferred to another entity for a specific purpose. This purpose depends on the kind of easement and its specific terms.

Easements come in many forms, including utility easements, conservation easements and road easements. In this case, an agricultural easement was used to ensure that the 68-acre parcel was only used for agricultural purposes.

While mitigation projects are often legally mandated by a government agency in exchange for developing a plot of land with comparable agricultural or environmental value, this one was pursued “to show good faith and as a way to acknowledge that they were building next to prime farmland in the San Juan Valley,” Fuller said.

The 68-acre parcel was eventually sold to the neighboring Dobler & Sons, who incorporated it into its existing operations. It’s now used to grow cool-season leafy vegetables and sometimes berries, while the conservation easement is administered by the San Benito Agricultural Land Trust (SBALT). 

“Someone from the land trust visits every eight months or so to make sure the land is looking good,” said Steven Dobler, a partner in Dobler & Sons.

The land trust works to conserve regionally significant parcels that sustain productive agriculture, preserve open space, and maintain the rural character of the county, according to its mission statement.

“As a nonprofit entity representing the public trust, we visit the property each year to ensure that the easement funds and contract are being upheld and that no one is breaking the language of the conservation easement,” said Paul Hain, a board member with SBALT.

In San Benito County, regionally significant lands often include prime agricultural land, which has several definitions depending on its context (see Part One and Part Two of this series for more information). In short, prime agricultural land possesses soil characteristics and favorable growing conditions that make it the best land for agricultural production.

The state and county both have several mechanisms in place to keep prime agricultural land in farmers’ hands and ensure that if it’s converted for urban development, it’s done deliberately and carefully. 

Prime agricultural landowners receive tax breaks to keep cultivating their land, and the California Environmental Quality Act requires an environmental impact report (EIR) if they decide to convert it for urban use. Oftentimes, that EIR will find that the developer must mitigate the loss of prime agricultural land by pursuing an easement.

A prime agricultural land conservation easement works like this: someone seeking to develop 100 acres of prime agricultural land (let’s call this Plot A) must identify a Plot B with 100 acres of prime agricultural land. It matters less who owns Plot B and more that they are willing to exchange Plot B’s development rights for a cash payment—and an agreement that they’ll continue to farm the land in perpetuity.

According to Lynn Overtree of SBALT, funds for a conservation easement are typically raised by “private donations (this would include giving and private foundations like Moore Foundation), public grants (State Department of Conservation, Natural Resource Conservation Service, etc.), mitigation funds, and landowner donations.”

“Farmers are often cash-poor and land-rich, and this generates money that is available to them,” said Overtree. “Typically, the landowners that we work with are motivated by the conservation of their land, but that’s not always the case. Some look at the bottom line and make a business decision to enter into a conservation easement.”

There are several ways developers can pursue mitigation projects related to developing prime agricultural land. First, they can obtain an easement on prime ag land they already own. Second, they can purchase prime ag land and obtain an easement for that parcel. Third, they can obtain an easement on prime ag land owned and farmed by a third party. Fourth, nonprofit organizations (like SBALT) can be enlisted by the permitting agency to identify, obtain, and manage an easement on a plot of prime agricultural land.

In theory, mitigation projects cap development by ensuring that as prime agricultural parcels are developed, equal parcels are set aside for conservation purposes.

If development projects could only proceed in areas without any prime agricultural land, it would be difficult to carefully plan commercial, residential and agricultural zones. Mitigation measures and transferable development credits provide a way for city planners to concentrate development in one place.

Transferable development credits enable the developer to purchase development credits from another plot of land and apply them to their own. This limits the right of the seller to build on their land, and allows the developer to build larger projects.

“Historically, urban conversion in San Benito County has been clustered around the Hollister area,” said Bill Nicholson, executive officer of the San Benito County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).

Mitigation allows for such clusters, since developing prime agricultural land within the city limits can be offset by obtaining a conservation easement for prime agricultural land located either in the county or elsewhere. This prevents the haphazard, unplanned growth known as urban sprawl.

Indeed, the most recent Hollister General Plan, published in 2005, includes provisions to “continue to protect natural resource areas as development occurs and to concentrate development to minimize sprawl.” San Benito County’s LAFCO charter commits to “discouraging urban sprawl [and] preserving open-space and prime agricultural lands.”

San Benito County has a long history of agriculture, making avoidance of urban sprawl a high priority for county and city planners. Mitigation efforts help them do just that.

While tax breaks for landowning farmers and environmental reviews for developing prime agricultural land provide incentives to maintain the area’s rural character, in practice, it’s mitigation projects that legally ensure prime agricultural land is cultivated forever.

These easements “don’t bother us at all,” said Dobler. “We’re farmers, it’s our business, and we’re happy farming land with no outside influence. That’s the goal of these easements: to keep farming the land for farmers.” 

Keeping prime agricultural land in farmers’ hands benefits more than just those who cultivate the land. It ensures that food is grown on the best arable land, now and for future generations.

“Society says it’s important to have ag land on which to grow food,” said Overtree. “But it’s not fair to put this burden on the individuals who own the land. We need to jointly carry that burden. If a farmer owns land that we as society value, [agricultural] easements allow us to pay the farmer to keep it that way, and we all benefit. That’s why we’re willing to pass bond measures to fund grants to buy conservation easements: to share the burden of retaining this land in the long-term.”

 

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Matthew Koller