For a long time I’ve listened to folks go back and forth on the proposed Mountain Springs project – it’s either the worst thing to hit the county or the greatest. Like it or not, Mountain Springs has become a full-blown symbol for various interests wrestling for control of Tuolumne County’s future and perhaps its very soul.
This week the Board sat down to ask questions, deliberate, and suggest Mountain Springs’ approval should be conditioned with improved mitigation measures or denied. To decide on the project (likely in August), ultimately the Board will have to make a finding that the public benefits aren’t or are sufficient to justify “significant and unvoidable” impacts including ag land conversion, air quality, traffic, noise, and growth.
The Union Democrat and MyMotherLode.com covered the hearing and in case the reports didn’t tell you enough and you didn’t listen to the live audio, I’d like to share with you what I proposed to improve mitigation for Mountain Springs’ proposed conversion of ag land that could allow us to pursue new opportunities for agriculture in Tuolumne County.
As I considered approving Mountain Springs, a number of the arguments for it and against it made sense. I was fairly certain based on public comments over the last year that three supervisors are supportive of Mountain Springs. Since it appears to be headed for approval, I see an opportunity to advance agriculture and improve the mitigation.
In my mind, in order to approve Mountain Springs there absolutely have to be strong benefits to the public and to agriculture. There are benefits to the public from Mountain Springs, although the degrees of benefit are vigorously debated. Public benefits include jobs, housing, positive economic contributions, tax revenues, and more. Achieving benefits to agriculture from the development of Mountain Springs and the loss of that ag land takes a bit of imagination and vision.
Benefits to ag could include adding value to existing ag and creating new opportunities for diversified practices, providing incentives to farmers and ranchers to stay in business and maintain agricultural landscapes and traditions, increasing the perceived value of agriculture in the community and our youth via programs and education, supporting the developing an ag tourism industry, protecting existing ag land and uses, setting a precedent for mitigation that protects the land and promotes ag, and so on.
To that end, here are the conditions I requested the developers include as part of the approval of Mountain Springs:
1. Create a Tuolumne County Lands Conservation Fund to support programs to protect agricultural land and promote and enhance the agriculture industry in the County. The fund may be used by the County to provide programs for enhancing agricultural operations in the County, purchase agricultural land in fee title or agricultural easements, or other purposes related to the protection or promotion of the agricultural industry in Tuolumne County as determined by the Board of Supervisors.
2. Mountain Springs will pay mitigation for all ag lands converted to residential & commercial (427.4 acres), recreation (32 acres), and open space (285 acres) on a ratio of 1:1, based on $2,000/acre. (The golf course parcel is to be excluded from mitigation since it was taken out of agriculture a long time ago.)
3. Mitigation funds will be paid to Tuolumne County Lands Conservation Fund deposited with Sonora Area Foundation or in trust with the County of Tuolumne. The administrator of the Tuolumne County Lands Conservation Fund will be established by the County, as approved by the Board of Supervisors at the time the fund is established.
4. Mountain Springs will create an ag easement on the 2-40 acre parcels (80-acres) buffer on southwest end of project and provide water (treated or otherwise) to be used for irrigation in the buffer area. Both parcels will be put out for bid to be leased or sold with an ag easement. The land must be maintained in viable, productive agriculture and could be advised by a committee whose members could include a representative from Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, the TC Ag Commissioner, TC Cooperative Extension advisor, TC Resource Conservation District, Farms of Tuolumne County, and Master Gardeners.
5. Mountain Springs will make every attempt to feature locally grown ag commodities in the hotel and restaurant and provide space and water where access to treated water exists adjacent to open space or park(s) for community garden areas.
6. Mountain Springs will maintain existing fences with neighboring ag parcels, ranchers will not be held responsible for damages such as could result due to livestock entering the community as a result of vandalism to fences, will assume joint responsibility with property owners on fences where parcels not zoned ag or once ag parcels are split and developed, the 80 acre buffer area will be fenced off from adjacent property owners with non-climb or similar fencing that will not permit domestic pets or humans to access adjacent ag property.
7. Mountain Springs will post “No Trespassing – Private Property” warning signs on existing MS boundary fences near open space/trails with adjacent agricultural properties
And finally, having absolutely nothing to do with agriculture but everything to do with benefiting the community and the County, Mountain Springs community will be “broadband friendly” – providing infrastructure for broadband, fire fuels management plans in densely vegetated areas will be updated on a regular basis and are required to be implemented by the Homeowners Association, and conditions/mitigation responsibilities will transfer with parcels.
Over the next few weeks, staff will work with the developers to iron out the specifics of these conditions and they will return to the Board – likely on August 5th – for final consideration.
Not part of the Mountain Springs decision, but to be shaped through a subsequent stakeholder process and considered for adoption by the Board at a later date are a mitigation ordinance to address future conversion of ag land and possible programs to benefit ag.
Tuolumne County Ag Commissioner Vicki Helmar says some common strategies to increase ag production values include:
– diversification of the types of crops,
– converting from lower valued crops to higher value fruit and nut crops,
– specialty and value-added crops like winegrapes,
– olives for oil,
– blueberries for dehydration,
– lavender and other botanicals used for scents,
– implementation of ‘Locally Grown’ programs, and
– organic production.
Three counties that have converted acreage from lower value crops to higher valued fruit and nut crops have increased values by 53% in a 10 year period. Calaveras County’s 1998 value was $1,730,000 and in 2007 the value was $3,048,200. Placer County’s 1998 value was $2,915,800 and in 2007 its value was $7,470,700. Yolo County’s 1998 value was $68,347,000 and in 2007 the value was $105,223,700.
Vicki concludes, “a combination of strategies can provide increased value of ag commodities. Mitigation of the loss of ag land from Mountain Springs through the funding and implementation of any program(s) that support these strategies could be a real benefit to Tuolumne County.”
An industry with great potential in Tuolumne County is ag toursim. A White Paper prepared in 2007 by a workgroup from the University of California’s Cooperative Extension states,
“A rapidly growing population and corresponding economic pressures have forced many farmers and ranchers to seek other opportunities for income enhancement within their current operation. Agriculture and nature tourism is a logical way to increase profitability and opportunity, create a more sustainable community while maintaining a high quality of life, and conserve natural resources in California.
This type of tourism is the fastest growing segment of economic development initiatives nationally and internationally. Agriculture tourism enterprises include things such as farm tours, farm stands, u-pick farms, hunting clubs, vineyard weddings, old-fashioned cattle brandings, trail rides, and farm stays. Nature tourism entails a commercial operation working toward its visitor’s enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of natural areas while conserving the local ecological, social, and cultural values. Both of these types of rural tourism incorporate aspects of cultural, historical, place based experiences that are authentic and homegrown.”
Tuolumne County could support the development of various new ag opportunities in a number of ways. A few of them that I mentioned in the Board meeting are:
• facilitate a stakeholder-driven development of vision and implementation plan for the local ag industry,
• support development and promotion of existing (and new) locally grown foods,
• develop low or no interest short-term loan program to ranchers/farmers to develop ag tourism infrastructure (picnic areas, etc.),
• examine existing land use policies and zoning to determine which need to be changed to benefit and encourage existing and new ag,
• identify suitable areas for intensive ag expansion by overlaying NRCS soils survey data with available ag and recycled TUD water availability to identify land use changes to encourage small organic or conventional irrigated ag farms for locally grown food and ag tourism,
• treat provision of rural landscapes as a crop: create an open space/view shed lease program for ranchers who aren’t interested in conservation easements that would provide a pre-established monthly payment over a pre-determined time period for keeping ag land in ag,
• conservation easements, if demand develops,
• contribute to and strengthen noxious weed eradication program countywide,
• encourage agriculturally healthy rangelands and forests through coordinated efforts with state and federal government agencies,
• collaborate and assist existing agricultural education programs (i.e. Pizza Farm, high school ag programs, 4-H, Ag in the Classroom, Farms of Tuolumne County, TuCARE, etc.) to educate community and children on value of agriculture
• conduct outreach for planning, programs, education, and promote existing and new markets and opportunities for ag in Tuolumne County
Many opportunities exist to achieve a vibrant and growing ag industry, it just takes imagination, courage, hard work, and money.
I grew up during the demise of the sheep industry in Mendocino County. It looked something like what we see here now. In small increments, we are witnessing the passing away of the Tuolumne County we treasure. Unless and until we figure out how to keep what we love while we are reinventing agriculture to expand its scope, it will be lost parcel by parcel and family by family.
My favorite quote from Gone With the Wind is poignantly relevant. Ashley Wilkes represented the Southern culture and way of life. He realized that with the Civil War, the South he loved was passing away before his eyes. Scarlett O’Hara, very much in the present and desperate for a solution to starvation and misery asked him,
“Oh, Ashley, What’s to become of us all?”
He responded looking at things from a greater perspective.
“I wonder not only what will become of us at Tara but what will become of everybody in the South… In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out.”
Tuolumne County’s agriculture and those who love it can act decisively and seize opportunities when they present themselves. The proposed ag land mitigation from Mountain Springs can benefit not only the public, but also agriculture… if we act with brains and courage.