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Santa Clara County Taking Fresh Look at Saving Farmland

By Eric Kurhi

MORGAN HILL — Andy Mariani knows the days of his beloved “Andy’s Orchard” farm are numbered.

Since his family moved its operation to Morgan Hill from Cupertino — selling a parcel in 1957 that’s now across the street from Apple headquarters — he’s seen development creep in from all sides. What was once 50 acres in the middle of a couple dozen other farming operations is now an island of stone-fruit agriculture, with Mariani as one of the area’s last holdouts.

“We are the remnants, the last couple of dinosaurs after a mass extinction,” said Mariani, 70. “There’s a natural incompatibility between agriculture and urban use and how can you resolve that? You can’t. It has to go one way or the other and the scales were tipped the other way a long time ago.”

But customers adore his farm, and green space advocates stress the importance of hanging on to the vestiges of the county’s historic farmland.

On Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors will consider launching an ambitious regional plan aimed at preserving agriculture in what was once known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight for its bounty of fruits and vegetables.

The idea is to create a policy framework to prevent the piecemeal development of South County farmland. The county plans to join forces with San Jose, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and regional stakeholders.

The proposal, the result of a partnership with the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, is the result of a $100,000 grant awarded by the California Strategic Growth Council. County Planning Director Kirk Girard said coming up with the framework should enable the county to get more financial assistance in securing land.

“What we see on the horizon is the state potentially investing in agricultural protection and we want to be ready and competitive if funds are made available,” Girard said. “Jurisdictions that use a combination of regulatory rules and economic incentives are usually more successful in preserving land than those with just regulations.”

According to a county report, 45 percent of Santa Clara County farmland was converted to other uses between 1984 and 2000. Roughly 1,000 acres were lost between 2008 and 2010. Green space advocates say 55 percent of the remaining 20,000 acres is at risk of development.

Morgan Hill is currently eyeing more than 200 acres for a sports and recreation hub, and in San Jose, a warehouse and distribution facility has been proposed on 30 acres in North Coyote Valley.

A recently approved Gilroy master development of 4,000 homes north of city limits has been temporarily shelved by the landowner after public outcry, but it will be back.

Jeremy Madsen, CEO of the San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance preservation group, said the Gilroy and Coyote Valley proposals illustrate the need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

“There are a lot of developers who are thinking about this the right way, with projects near transit so people have different options,” he said. “But there are still some who want to build for 1980 instead of 2016.”

Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who represents the South County area that accounts for the lion’s share of Silicon Valley farmland, said they will be looking at what current controls are in place and what could be brought to the table.

“I’ve heard of clustering homes, I’ve heard of mitigation, and there are policies already in place,” he said. “We generally agree that farmland is important, but the population is not going to stop growing and we need to look at ways to accommodate that growth and still preserve agricultural land.”

First on the to-do list is identifying potential plots to preserve. That might prioritize sites that are still in the thick of remaining agricultural lands, while other areas that have already seen development surround them — such as Andy’s Orchard — might not be as beneficial to hang on to. Then a committee of stakeholders including farming interests would analyze what kind of policies could be implemented to save prime tracts.

Jeff Martin, who owns land north of Gilroy that was included in the 721-acre proposal there, saw the development plan criticized in the local media and by a host of residents who said it was far too ambitious. But Martin maintains that the Local Agency Formation Commission that oversees development in the interest of controlling sprawl decided back in the 1980s that expansion to the north was appropriate.

“I was here in 1984 when they produced this thing,” he said of the growth plan. “We have policies but people forget about these things. Do we really need to establish new ones? It sounds like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Girard said that it will be ultimately be up to property owners to sell their land for preservation, and the hope is that state funds would sweeten the pot to be competitive with what they could get otherwise.

Mariani, who owns Andy’s Orchard along with two older siblings, said he barely gets by selling mainly to a niche heirloom varietal market. His farm has tasted some fame, appearing in Sunset Magazine and other publications, and he often has folks tell him that he can’t quit — the resource he provides is too valuable. But Mariani knows what he’s doing is becoming less and less viable.

“I’m going to stay here as long as I can,” said Mariani, who worked for Saratoga as assistant city manager for a spell before hanging up a job he hated and returning to the farm and his roots. “But I’m a dirt farmer. I’m not a CEO or a professional who came here to plant a vineyard and have a tax write-off if it’s not profitable. This land is all I have. It’s my 401(k) plan. It’s my retirement.”


This article was originally published by the San Jose Mercury News.

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