Soapbox

Can Sacramento County save its farmers? Not if Elk Grove expands

A lone sunflower grows near a freshly turned soil on the S-T Strawberry farm on Jackson Road in an area Sacramento County plans to urbanize.
A lone sunflower grows near a freshly turned soil on the S-T Strawberry farm on Jackson Road in an area Sacramento County plans to urbanize. Sacramento Bee file

On Feb. 7, four Sacramento LAFCo commissioners began unraveling of decades of agricultural protection, orderly urban growth and open space planning that relied on a firm urban limit at Elk Grove’s southern boundary.

The split decision by the Local Agency Formation Commission — three commissioners voted no — gave Elk Grove the go-ahead to plan development on 1,156 acres of farmland. Elk Grove’s presentation made clear that it intends to pave over much more than this in coming years.

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Judith Lamare

Environmental groups have asked the commission to reconsider its decision on Wednesday, based on a state law that requires it to ensure orderly growth and preserve farmland and open space when it considers changes in city boundaries.

Vacant land within existing city limits is supposed to be a key factor in calculating whether a sphere of influence expansion onto farmland is needed to accommodate growth. In Elk Grove, there are about 4,000 acres of vacant land zoned and available for development, including 1,800 acres where residential projects remain unbuilt, some for more than a decade. The LAFCo executive director’s report misled the public and commissioners by counting as “vacant” only the land that did not have project approvals. Plenty of vacant land exists inside Elk Grove’s present boundaries for growth.

Opinion

The commission adopted a statement prepared by staff to dismiss 22 significant and unavoidable impacts that cannot be fully mitigated, including loss of farmland and open space and further groundwater depletion. Also, the sphere of influence amendment conflicts with the Metropolitan Transportation Plan that underpins all federal and state funding. Notably not discussed by the commission was the additional cost to the public to acquire right of way for the planned Capital Southeast Connector bordering the expansion area due to land speculation it causes.

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James P. Pachl

At the core of this decision is the future of farming and Sacramento County’s agricultural economy. One commissioner implied that the decision would not harm farming because so little of the land is defined as “prime.” Yet the environmental report identified significant impacts on agriculture that cannot be mitigated.

If we are only prepared to save “prime” farmland, then California’s agricultural fabric will become more tattered and unsustainable. That fabric includes different kinds of farmland and an infrastructure supporting an industry that produced more than $500 million in revenue last year in Sacramento County.

If the commission doesn’t reverse its decision, we are facing a dramatic loss of farmers in our region.

Judith Lamare and James P. Pachl are members of Habitat 2020 and founded Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk. They can be contacted at swainsonshawk@sbcglobal.net.

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