Council Considers New Funding, Changes to Farmland Conservation Program

The Strategic Growth Council met this week to review new draft guidelines for California’s groundbreaking Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) program. There was plenty of good news for the farmland conservation program, including a staff recommendation to increase program funding from $5 million to $40 million in SALC’s second round.

From Bay Nature. Livermore, CA.

However, the draft guidelines also raised some concerns about the future of the planning grants portion of the program.

SALC is the country’s first climate change program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the conversion of farmland to sprawl development. The program currently funds two types of activities: conservation easements on agricultural lands at risk of development, as well as planning grants for local governments to assess their farmlands and develop policies that protect their agricultural resources.

The SALC program comes at a time when California continues to lose, on average, 50,000 acres per year to non-agricultural uses. As noted in a recent op-ed by Yolo County farmer and former California Secretary of Food and Agriculture, Rich Rominger, “Our farmlands are a finite resource; once converted to urban or suburban development, they are lost to agriculture. With that loss, we chip away at our ability to grow food and protect watersheds, open space and wildlife habitat.”

Changes to Improve SALC’s Success

The new draft guidelines propose some welcome changes, including greater flexibility for matching fund requirements for conservation easements: 25 percent match in communities not designated as disadvantaged and 10 percent match required in disadvantaged communities. This will make it easier to fund easements on urban/suburban edge agricultural lands where adequate matching funds can be tougher to come by.

Staff is also looking to refine the quantification of greenhouse gas emissions reductions that SALC-funded activities can produce. Many of us have recommended a more robust modeling effort that accounts for emissions associated with changes in zoning densities and urban building energy when sprawl occurs. Better quantification can result in more strategic investments in at-risk agricultural lands.

Other new components to the program include an interagency effort to develop a new component of the SALC program for the third round of funding (FY 2016-17): incentives for on-farm management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration. An interagency group is also considering how the Strategic Growth Council’s climate change programs might fund affordable farmworker housing in rural towns—which, among other benefits, could help reduce worker travel to agricultural jobs.

Planning Grants in Question

The biggest challenge facing the SALC program is the proposed change to the planning grants. Under the draft guidelines, cities and counties that receive a grant would have to conduct their planning processes upfront and deliver a clear outcome (e.g. creation of farmland mitigation program, urban growth boundary, etc.) before the state would reimburse them for their activities. For most local governments, taking on the risk of conducting the project without a guarantee of reimbursement will likely discourage them from applying.

We know that the state cannot achieve its ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduces without smart growth strategies that include land use policy changes that engage local governments in new planning and policy development that protects farmland. Making the SALC grants work is critical to the success of the Council’s smart growth efforts.

Opportunity to Engage

CalCAN is coordinating a response to the draft guidelines, working with our partners in the land trust, sustainable agriculture and local government communities, to suggest ways we can move forward with the planning grants, improved emissions quantification and more.

Public comments on the SALC draft guidelines are due on November 4. Public workshops on the draft guidelines will be held in Santa Rosa, Tulare and Camarillo in November. Click here (and scroll to page ten) for details on the workshops dates and locations.

 

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