The California legislature took an important step to conserve farmland last week by passing Senate Bill 732 by Senator Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park). SB 732 responds to the alarming loss of farmland in the state by encouraging local governments to do a better job of identifying and prioritizing their agricultural lands for farmland conservation and identifying land suitable for urban in-fill development. The bill now heads to the Governor’s desk.
California’s highly productive farmland is a finite resource and is being lost at an alarming rate. Between 1984 to 2010, California lost an area of farmland larger than all of Merced County (1.4 million acres), averaging a loss of about one square mile every four days. If current trends continue unabated, the state is at risk of losing an area of farmland nearly twice the size of San Joaquin County (1.8 million acres) by 2050.
Paving over the state’s farmland not only permanently destroys its productive capacity, but also converts it from a potential carbon sink into an intensive carbon source. One UC Davis case study found that an acre of urban land in Yolo County emitted 70 times more GHG emissions than an acre of irrigated cropland.
Because decisions made at the local level have a profound impact on the conversion of farmland to non-agricultural uses, CalCAN co-sponsored legislation similar to SB 732 a few years ago, but the effort was stopped by the building industry. With a slightly different approach and support once again from American Farmland Trust, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, and a number of other local and regional land trusts, SB 732 passed both houses with supermajority (2/3) votes.
Under existing law, cities and counties are required to develop a General Plan to guide future planning decisions. General Plans must include a number of “elements,” including one for open-space, which guides decisions related to the long-term conservation of open-space lands for agricultural, wildlife habitat and other purposes. Since General Plans and their open-space elements drive land use decisions, it is critical that they include data-driven goals and policies.
SB 732 incentivizes local governments with grants from the Department of Conservation (DOC) to either establish an agricultural land component within their open-space element or establish a separate agricultural land element in their General Plan according to SB 732’s new guidelines.
Those guidelines require local governments to do all of the following when establishing agricultural land components:
- Identify and map categories of agricultural lands within the city or county’s jurisdiction,
- Establish a comprehensive set of goals and policies to support long-term preservation of agricultural land,
- Designate priority land for conservation, and
- Establish a set of feasible implementation measures designed to promote those goals.
It’s been a few years since DOC had funding available for local government to improve farmland conservation planning efforts. In June, the department received over $2 million for farmland conservation planning and policy development beginning in 2018.
While incentive grants are an important tool to inspire local governments to take these steps, it is important to note that all local governments will now be able to adopt SB 732’s voluntary framework for agricultural land components, regardless of whether they receive financial assistance to do so. To aid in that process, SB 732 also authorizes the DOC to craft and promulgate model farmland conservation plans and policies.
One other achievement of SB 732 is that it gives authority to the DOC’s existing Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program to collect data on the amount of land converted between agricultural land categories (e.g. “prime farmland” vs “farmland of local importance”), as opposed to just the amount of land converted into or out of agricultural use. This new data will be helpful in detecting trends in changing agricultural land use, including dubious practices real estate investors, speculators, and developers use to gradually shift farmland into categories of lesser importance (e.g. by ceasing to irrigate it).
Agricultural lands throughout California are at risk of being converted to non-agricultural uses, having serious implications for the agricultural economy and climate.
By passing SB 732, the California Legislature took a modest but important step to help local governments advance smart growth policies that preserve carbon-sequestering, food-producing, and finite agricultural lands.