Policies to save farmland: How cities use different planning tools to curb excessive growth

Today, the city council will discuss settling a long-standing lawsuit with developers over a provision that is intended to preserve open space and farmland within large developments. As it stands, the Agriculture Mitigation Ordinance requires developers to acquire conservation agreement for land equivalent to the size of the development for projects over 40 acres. Under 40 acres, developers can pay a fee of $10,000 per acre instead. As part of the settlement, developers would like to remove the 40 acre restriction and be able to pay the fee regardless of acreage.* The distinction won’t make much of a difference, according to sources in the Record article, but the real story here is, why is the city allowing the conversion of farmland at all?

The problem with this policy is that sprawl still happens, it just now happens with extra open space. Don’t get me wrong, the intent is admirable, and open space needs to be preserved. However, more should be done to stop any growth the expands the city’s footprint. There are other ways to accomplish this, and below are some ideas used in other cities that Stockton could also employ to curb sprawl.

Creative zoning
Traditionally, developers come to the city with a plan and lobby the city to annex the open space it will be built on. If a city would like to prevent this type of building, it can annex the land before hand, and use zoning to restrict what can be built. For example, if a city wants to stop development on the outskirts, the city can be proactive by annexing the land and zoning it so that development would either be financially unprofitable or forbidden by zoning altogether. If the land is currently used for agriculture, the city can simply zone the area for continued agricultural use. Or, the city can zone the area to discourage development. For example, in order to preserve open space, areas of Washington’s Kings County permit one structure per 80 acres, effectively banning sprawl.

The intersection of Thornton and Eight Mile Road, where development threatens to take over farmland north of the city

While effective in some cities, using zoning to restrict growth is politically difficult as landowners get frustrated with not being able to sell their land to developers for money they believe should be rightfully theirs. Furthermore, unless there is a comprehensive plan to absorb demand for new housing elsewhere, pressure will increase on city officials to rezone.

Transfer of development rights
While zoning to prevent growth does not allow landowners to profit from the sale of their property, the transfer of development rights (TDR) solves this problem. In a TDR program, a farmer can sell their rights to developers in areas of the city slated for higher densities. Essentially, farmers still get the money from the land, and also get to keep farming it, while developers are allowed to build in areas which the city feels would be better suited for development, preserving open space.

This strategy works better than regular zoning as it relies on market forces to redirect growth. The concept is fairly simple, but the details are complex. Here is a thorough breakdown of everything a TDR program entails.

Withholding of services
When new developments are built, so is new infrastructure. Roads, sewers, water delivery, street lights, power lines and stop signs all need to be put in, and generally the local municipality is in charge. Without these amenities, it would be very cost prohibitive for developers to assume full responsibility of all infrastructure costs, both for initial construction and upkeep. Even when developers agree to take on some of these costs up front, the long term costs become a burden to the city over time as additional property tax revenue does not cover these expenses. Because of this cost, cities can effectively stop or make less profitable the spread of development by not providing infrastructure. By not footing the bill for new roads, sewage systems, power lines and sidewalks, the city can force these costs onto the developer, curbing growth.

When Spanos Park West was in the works, the company was to build over 900 high-density units as part of the project. Unfortunately, the total units were never realized as only one third were built, as Spanos and the city decided on more commercial land and eventually, a Super Wal-Mart. The punishment? paying a fee of $2,000 per unbuilt unit in 10 years if they are not built elsewhere. While asking for more high density is a start, the city could get tougher on sprawl by demanding that farmland and open paved over for development be matched or exceeded by development within existing city limits. For example, the city could impose a ratio for new developments, where every 10 acres built upon new land would need to be augmented by the development or redevelopment of 2 acres of land in the city. This ratio could be done on a per unit basis as well.

Whatever the strategy, something needs to be done to not just preserve open space, but redirect development back into the city, or else we will eventually run into Lodi and French Camp, and previously established neighborhoods will continue to decline.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that developers were required to reserve an equal amount of acres within their developments, instead of an equal amount elsewhere.

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Categories: Smart Growth

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

4 Comments on “Policies to save farmland: How cities use different planning tools to curb excessive growth”

  1. August 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    The agenda, as we see it, is talking about changing the elements of an ag mitigation agreement from buying equivalent land to paying a fee for property larger than 40 acres.

  2. Rosemary M Atkinson
    August 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    I made a reply to your blog. Rosemary

  3. August 28, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Hi David…
    I very much agree with the sentiments you express regarding preservation of farmland. However, your description of the settlement agreement on tonight’s CC agenda does not express what is in the settlement agreement.

    The Ag Mitigation Ordinance requires a developer to acquire conservation agreements on other equivalent land of the same size as a proposed development if the latter exceeds 40 acres. Below 40 acres, developers have the option of paying an ag mitigation fee in lieu of acquiring a conservation agreement. Tonight’s proposed settlement would allow the developer to pay a mitigation fee regardless of the size of land proposed for development.

    Unfortunately, it is very difficult for developers to buy conservation easements in areas that might conceivably be considered equivalent to their land within the city’s sphere of influence.

    To my knowledge, there is no City ordinance requiring a development to retain half its land as open space.

    Trevor Atkinson – Campaign for Common Ground

    • Stockton City Limits
      August 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

      Trevor and Rosemary,

      Thank you for the clarification. I misinterpreted the language in the record article, but have straightened out the specifics in the post.


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