By Joel Devalcourt, Guest Commentary for the Contra Costa Times
Spring isn’t even here yet and farmers markets throughout Contra Costa County are already bursting with delicious fresh food.
As we enjoy that bounty, we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Local food depends on local farms, and local farms need your help. Important decisions are coming up that will affect thousands of acres of Contra Costa’s farms and ranch land.
Contra Costa County has always had a rich agricultural heritage, thanks to our mild climate, productive soil, and the dedication of farmers over many generations. The Delta provides plentiful water, a golden resource in thirsty times. And here, agriculture contributes $225 million to the local economy, including jobs producing, selling and serving local food.
But the land it all depends on is at risk.
Between 1990 and 2008, 40 percent of Contra Costa County’s prime farmland was lost to sprawling development. For a while, Brentwood was the fastest-growing city in the state, and orchards fell fast to subdivisions. Then the bottom fell out of the housing market, and urban-edge developments lost value in a precipitous crash.
Today, land speculation is putting on the pressure all over again. In fact, Contra Costa County has the most natural and agricultural land at risk of development in the entire region: more than 18,000 acres or the equivalent of 18 Golden Gate parks.
Fortunately, this time, we have more tools to help.
A new report from Greenbelt Alliance, HomeGrown, lays out the barriers facing farmers and ranchers today, along with strategies to keep them in business and reduce the pressure to sell their land for sprawl development. Many of these tools and ideas are already working in other locations around the Bay Area.
And now we have a unique opportunity to put those tools into action, right in our backyard.
The Contra Costa Transportation Authority is about to make critical decisions that affect the entire farm economy in Contra Costa County. Right now, the agency is deciding on a major transportation sales tax measure. Where freeways and transit lines go has a big impact on the county’s agricultural land, so it makes sense for the measure to include agricultural protections. Rather than investing in sprawl-fueling freeways that would decimate farms and ranches, our county can fix our congestion problems, invest in high-performing transportation solutions, and protect local agriculture at the same time.
First, CCTA should strengthen our urban limit line.
For generations, Contra Costa voters have voted to protect natural and agricultural lands. In 1990, voters approved an urban limit line, to define where development should and should not occur. In 2004, voters made the line even stronger, and added a program to direct growth more centrally, near public transit, jobs, and services — not out on farms and ranches.
But loopholes remain, even after the voters have spoken.
The county’s urban limit line can be breached. Today, expansions of 30 acres don’t need to go to a vote of the people. It doesn’t sound like much — but in fact, this loophole puts 9,300 acres of agricultural and open space land at risk. It’s death by a thousand cuts.
The fix is clear: CCTA should close that loophole by requiring any urban limit line change to go to a vote of the people.
Second, CCTA should require mitigation for any agricultural lands lost when new transportation or development projects are built.
While many farmers in Contra Costa County have successfully preserved their land, much more is needed, especially along the urban edge — in the same places that voters have demonstrated time and again that our farmland matters. CCTA should adopt policies ensuring that whenever agricultural land is lost, funding is provided to protect additional agricultural lands in the county.
What CCTA decides will shape the county for generations to come. Will fruit trees continue to bloom and cattle graze on the hills? Or will new sprawling subdivisions pour more traffic onto the roads?
You can help. CCTA needs to hear that these policies matter. This is your chance to speak up for local farms and ranches, and for a sustainable future for Contra Costa County.
To learn more about what’s at stake and how to give input, visit greenbelt.org.
Joel Devalcourt is the East Bay representative of Greenbelt Alliance, which shapes the rules that govern growth around the San Francisco Bay Area to protect open spaces and ensure the right development happens in the right places. To read Greenbelt Alliance’s new report, HomeGrown, visit greenbelt.org/homegrown
This article was originally written for the Contra Costa Times.