State report shows open space disappearing

The Associated Press
Thursday October 12, 2000

FRESNO — Almost 70,000 acres of California’s open space was devoured by a growing population lured to the state by its booming economy from 1996 to 1998, according to a state report released Wednesday. 

The urban sprawl is driven by California’s annual influx of roughly 700,000 people and has hit the state’s farmers particularly hard, according to the Department of Conservation’s biennial Farmland Conservation Report. 

About two-thirds of the newly developed areas, more than 43,000 acres, is on land formerly used for food production. 

“This is not a new issue for California farmers in the Central Valley and the Central Coast – or in the Silicon Valley and southern California, where the farmland is just about lost,” said John Gamper, director of taxation and land use policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation. 

The report notes that the rate of urbanization was up 25 percent statewide over the 1994-1996 period, which saw an 8 percent jump from the previous two-year period. 

“We’re not going to see the population growth stop any time soon. When we report up to 2000, we think that the rate of urbanization will have climbed even higher,” said DOC Assistant Director Eric Vink. 

Southern California continues to be the most heavily urbanized region with 30,300 acres lost primarily to commercial and residential construction. Of those newly built-up acres, almost 7,000 were irrigated farmland. 

Despite new state and federal programs that grant tax breaks to landowners who promise to keep their land in agriculture, many growers in the hardest-hit areas of the state simply are giving up. Farmers increasingly are welcoming offers to sell their land to real estate developers eager to build model communities in tranquil rural settings. 

“These subdivisions have come to within just a couple of hundred yards of us,” said John Gless, who farms about 2,000 acres of citrus orchards on the outskirts of Riverside. 

Gless says restrictions on pesticide use near schools and homes, skyrocketing water bills and increasingly nightmarish traffic problems have driven just about all his neighbors off their farms over the past couple of decades. 

“We have not sold any land, but would welcome the offer if it comes. We cannot pay our farming bills, and if you can’t farm at a profit, you can’t farm,”  

Gless said. 

Similar stories have been coming out of the Santa Clara Valley, where the high-tech economy has fueled a construction boom that’s been pushing into some of the world’s most productive farmland over the past 10 years. 

“We’re in the south end of what they call Silicon Valley ... which is about 80 percent urbanized now. Most tractor dealerships have left and there are no more canneries or packing houses left,” said Mitchell Mariani, who farms about 100 acres of cherries near Morgan Hill. 

“Right now we look at this property as an investment for our future. Maybe somebody will want to come in and buy it,” Hill said. 

The San Joaquin Valley lost about 9,500 acres of farmland, the most of any region in the state. 

Over the last couple of years, Shawn Stevenson says he lost a big chunk of his 1,500-acre citrus farm northeast of Clovis to an expansion project on state Route 168. 

“Is urbanization a threat to agriculture? Of course it is, but it doesn’t do any good to address that issue without addressing high water and labor costs and low commodity prices,” Stevenson said. 

“First and foremost, farmers are going to respond to economic signals, and the signals that are being sent are telling us to get out while we can.”