In the San Joaquin Valley, at least 141,000 acres of agricultural land were developed between 1984 and 2010. Many communities statewide have witnessed a significant loss of farmland due to sprawl of non-agricultural development into rural areas, particularly on the edges of more urban areas. To counter these trends, State and local governments have developed farmland preservation strategies which generally focus on protecting farmland from conversion to urban uses by prohibiting or restricting development on farmland, permanently protecting those lands, or minimizing conflicts between existing agricultural operations and new development.
The preservation of agricultural land is critical in the San Joaquin Valley region, which relies on agriculture for its economic viability. As jurisdictions update their housing elements and other elements of the general plan, there is an opportunity to encourage development within existing urbanized areas to support the preservation of agricultural lands.
Preserving agricultural lands also has the added benefit of reducing regional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by sequestering carbon and preventing urban sprawl and increased VMT. These benefits should not be overlooked as they will further the region’s compliance with GHG reduction legislation (discussed in the Related State Laws and Statutes section below).
A considerable number of California counties and cities have farmland retention policies, often as part of their general plans. Most call for avoiding the best land and developing land more efficiently. However, as farmland conversion data shows, it is a challenge for local jurisdictions to implement these policies effectively. On the other hand, a few local governments in California have very comprehensive and effective farmland conservation programs that are considered national models. Most notable among them are Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Ventura, and Yolo Counties.
Balancing agricultural preservation and housing. Jurisdictions are faced with the challenge of balancing the need for development to support a growing population with the conservation of high value agricultural lands. Government Code Section 65584(d) requires the RHNA plan to promote infill development, protect agricultural resources, and encourage efficient development patterns. The housing element update presents jurisdictions with the opportunity to integrate infill development practices into their plan, which can help mitigate urban sprawl, and potentially qualifying for funding sources listed below (see also the Infill Development section of this report).
Environmental Justice. While many jurisdictions may lack the capacity to concurrently update multiple general plan elements, early preparation may present them with the opportunity to approach overlapping topical concerns with an integrated and efficient approach. For example, addressing agricultural preservation in the environmental justice element allows jurisdictions to address intersecting topical considerations such as food access and economic vitality. Jurisdictions also have the opportunity to mitigate pollution burdens such as pesticide application and additional air and water pollution, which may result in negative health outcomes for communities living in close proximity to farmlands when addressing agricultural preservation from an environmental justice lens. Examples of intersecting policies can be found in OPRs “Healthy and Environmentally Just Communities” document listed in the Available Resources section.
GHG emission reduction. Pursuant to Health and Safety Code Section 38566, jurisdictions are challenged with the task of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. Land management practices such as the preservation of agricultural land provide jurisdictions with the opportunity to change the trajectory of future biological carbon sequestration, reducing regional GHG emissions. Because preservation can reduce future urban sprawl, it could lead to a decrease in local VMT, further lowering regional GHG emissions.
Relevant State Law
Housing Elements, Government Code Section 65584(d)., requires the RHNA allocation methodology to promote infill development and socioeconomic equity, protect environmental and agricultural resources, and encourage efficient development patterns.
Williamson Act, Assembly Bill No. 2632 (AB 2632) (2020), enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. In return, landowners receive property tax assessments which are much lower than normal because they are based upon farming and open space uses as opposed to full market value.
Terracount, is a scenario planning tool for cities, counties, districts, and other land use planners and decision-makers. TerraCount models the greenhouse gas (GHG) and natural resource implications of different development patterns and management activities. TerraCount allows planners to evaluate the application of management activities including agricultural activities such as cover cropping, restoration activities such as riparian restoration, and avoided conversion such as avoided conversion of agricultural land to development. It was developed by the California Department of Conservation and the Nature Conservancy.
OPR. Healthy and Environmentally Just Communities. is a compilation of environmental justice goals, policies, programs, and actions that have been adopted by California cities and counties. This document includes examples of policies focused on local agriculture.
County of Ventura. Land Conservation Act Program. is considered notable in effectively conserving agricultural land. This program is referred to as the Land Conservation Act or LCA and it encourages property owners to continue the agricultural use of their land instead of converting it to nonagricultural uses. This site includes background information, as well as links to the most recent Land Conservation Act Guidelines.