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NR 2007-07
February 12, 2007

Contact: Ed Wilson
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
(916) 323-1886

CENTRAL SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY FARM, RANCH LAND
BEING REMOVED FROM AGRICULTURAL USE AT A FASTER RATE

Data for individual counties 

TULARE -- During the three-day run of this year's World Ag Expo, about 77 acres of land will be converted to non-agricultural use in the central San Joaquin Valley. By next year’s Expo, about 14.8 square miles of farm and ranch land will have gone away, according to the California Department of Conservation. By comparison, the City of Tulare covers about 18.4 square miles.

“While there’s still plenty of outstanding farm and ranching land out there, the acreage that is taken out of agricultural use is significant over the long haul,” said California Secretary for Resources Mike Chrisman, a fourth-generation rancher in Tulare County.

“California’s agricultural production leads the nation, and not by a small margin. And the state offers some great programs, such as the Williamson Act and the California Farmland Conservancy Program, to ensure it stays that way. But the issue of taking land out of agriculture is something we need to be aware of throughout every level of government.”

According to the Department of Conservation, 18,801 acres of land in Fresno, Kings, Merced, Madera, and Tulare counties were converted from farmland or grazing land to non-agricultural uses between 2002 and 2004, an average of nearly 26 acres a day.

That’s an increase in agricultural land being converted to other uses of more than 4,000 acres since the 2000-2002 report from DOC’s Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program.

The FMMP produces maps and land-use data that planners and decision-makers use in analyzing the impacts of growth on California’s agricultural resources. The maps are updated every two years using aerial photographs, a computer mapping system, public review, and field reconnaissance. A report covering change in the entire state from 2002 to 2004 will be released in the coming months.

“When people see the numbers for their local area in our reports, they sometimes look around at
all the agriculture and say, `I don’t see an issue,’ ” DOC Director Bridgett Luther said. “That’s because the change in land-use sneaks up on you. A couple of generations ago, Los Angeles County was the leading agricultural county in the nation. Not anymore. One generation ago, the Silicon Valley was known as `The Valley of Heart’s Delights’ because of all the agricultural production.

“We’re not against change or growth; they happen. As more people move into the state, they need places to live and work. We’re just trying to nudge that change away from our most productive farmland whenever possible. So we’re especially concerned about the Central Valley, in particular the fast-growing area around Fresno.”

Forty-three percent of the 18,801 acres taken out of agricultural use in the region were in Fresno County. Among the five counties, only Tulare County showed an increase in agricultural acreage (1,052 acres). Fresno County experienced a loss of 8,117 ag acres, Madera County 4,635 acres, Kings County 4,023 acres, and Merced County 3,078 acres.

Of the 8,825 acres of land newly classified by the FMMP as “urban and built-up,” 38 percent (3,362 acres) was in Fresno County. The report noted new housing developments in the Fresno-Clovis area, such as European Quarter, Kings Crossing, Alta Sierra and Historic Wawona Ranch; the new River Bluff Elementary and Rio Vista Middle schools; and the Save Mart Center and associated parking lots at Fresno State. Large developments on agricultural land elsewhere in Fresno County included the Liberty Intermediate School in Kerman, 100 acres of new homes in Selma, and the new Coalinga State Hospital.

A snapshot of other San Joaquin Valley locations:

¨ Merced County’s urbanized area grew by 1,852 acres from 2002-2004. Examples of new development included two housing projects in Atwater (215 total acres); the Monte Cristo and Sundance neighborhoods (a total of 70 acres) in Livingston; nearly 250 acres of new housing around Los Banos; the Bella Vista (65 acres) and Cypress Terrace (25 acres) projects as well as the Iris Garret Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex in Merced; and a 50-acre water control facility in the community of Volta.

¨ Tulare County had an additional 1,715 acres of urbanized land, mostly in the form of houses around Visalia (560 acres), Tulare (390 acres), and Porterville (70 acres). Also noted was the 35-acre Packwood Creek retail complex in the Visalia area.

¨ Kings County experienced urban growth totaling 972 acres, including the West Hills College project and an airport runway expansion project in Lemoore; a Target store and other commercial buildings across from the Hanford Mall; and small developments around the periphery of Avenal.

¨ Madera County’s urbanized land increased by 924 acres, including a new school, small housing developments, and a driving range in Madera and the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, occupying about 60 acres in the community of Coarsegold.

The long-term potential for land-use change in the region also can be seen in the amount of Williamson Act acreage in the process of non-renewal.

The Williamson Act has been the state’s premier agricultural land protection program since 1965. It preserves agricultural and open space lands through property tax incentives and voluntary restrictive-use contracts. Under the program, private landowners limit their property to agricultural and compatible open-space uses under minimum 10-year rolling term contracts with local governments. In return, restricted parcels are assessed for property tax purposes at a rate consistent with their actual use, rather than potential market value.

Generally, a landowner who wants to end the contract goes through the non-renewal process, and property taxes rise gradually as the contract winds down.

As of January 1, 2005, 16.6 million acres -- more than half of California's farmland total and a third of the state's privately owned land -- were enrolled in the Williamson Act. At the same time, 314,880 acres of contracted land were in some stage of non-renewal, including 27,615 acres in the central San Joaquin Valley.

"Those are the highest non-renewal numbers we’ve ever seen,” said Brian Leahy, head of DOC's Division of Land Resource Protection. “Taking your property out of the Williamson Act doesn't necessarily mean that you're planning to put houses and strip malls on your agricultural land. But many landowners say they can't continue farming or ranching without the Williamson Act’s tax benefits, so in that sense, the non-renewal totals can be an indication of what may be coming down the pike.

“Our Central Valley farmland is a limited natural resource. We need to closely watch how it’s being used and treasure it, because once it’s paved over, it’s gone.”

In addition to administering agricultural and open-space land conservation programs, the Department of Conservation studies and maps mineral resources, earthquakes and other geologic phenomena; ensures the reclamation of land used for mining; promotes beverage container recycling; and regulates oil, gas and geothermal wells.

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