Friday, January 20, 2006

Fixing problems with Santa Clara County Williamson Act

Santa Clara County is attempting to allow landowners to switch from Williamson Act contracts (tax breaks designed to protect agriculture) to Open Space Easements (tax breaks designed to protect open space). We and the state Department of Conservation are concerned that the switch will just become a loophole for development. CGF proposed the following changes to the County Supervisors.


Committee for Green Foothills’ suggested changes to provisions allowing exchanges from Williamson Act Contracts to Open Space Easement (OSE) Agreements

January 18, 2006

1. Because the law requires the OSE Agreements to be no less protective than the Williamson Act, we prefer that no Williamson Act restrictions, including prohibitions on development without agricultural use, be removed during the first 9 years after the exchange. Adding tighter restrictions to an OSE is permissible under the law, but subtracting the agricultural use requirement that would otherwise be in place, even for a 9-year transition period, raises concerns that the process becomes a means for escaping Williamson requirements. Keeping all restrictions does not eliminate the value of the Williamson Act exchange to an OSE. The landholder, in contrast to non-renewal, would secure the OSE tax advantages during the time period when the Williamson Act tax advantages would rapidly disappear. This fulfills the state legislature’s purpose in allowing exchanges between the two land use arrangements.

2. Short of the conservative approach described above, the County must show that it is getting some meaningful new development restriction not present under the Williamson Act if it is giving up a restriction that is present in the Williamson Act.

A. The “no development” OSE and “less than 1000 square feet” could be reasonably found to have met this test.

B. The “5% maximum” (presumably excluding subsurface and roads) may not.

C. If the property applying for exchange to the “5% maximum” OSE is too small to be subdivided, we suggest an additional planning step. The county hires a qualified assessor-consultant at the applicant’s expense to determine the assessor’s estimate of the likely value of the land with and without the OSE. The County will use the information to help determine whether the OSE represents a meaningful new restriction on development. A fee would be charged for this process. This process would not be necessary for land entering into an OSE that is new, as opposed to being exchanged from the Williamson Act.

While County staff suggest that development restrictions alone may be meaningful, the County Supervisors need some method for assessing that issue. If the County Supervisors believe the land value assessment can help them conduct a reasoned analysis of what the County gets out of the exchange to the OSE, they should consider including this step.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Urban coyotes

Seed magazine has an interesting article, "Wild Coyotes Move to the Windy City", discussing a six-year study of urban coyotes in Chicago. Apparently the coyotes play a useful role controlling the rodent, geese, and deer populations, although they get into garbage and pet food, and presumably kill pet cats and dogs as well.

The study suggests some reason to be concerned about potential danger to people, as coyotes become less and less afraid of humans. On the other hand, they were no confirmed coyote attacks on people during the six-year study, while 15,000 dog attacks occurred. It seems possible that if coyotes kill or drive off wild or semi-wild dogs, they may actually reduce attacks on people.

Coyote control has been an issue in south San Jose as people express fear of increasingly bold coyotes. I expect the issue will arise again.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Coyote Valley news

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales has resigned from the task force designing the Coyote Valley Specific Plan. This is likely to be good news, as Mayor Gonzales' influence has been disappointing - always in the direction of more development, way too soon. Hopefully the City will slow down now and consider other options. On the other hand, the task force is still heavily weighted in favor of development, so we'll just have to see if there are any real changes.

A task force meeting was yesterday. Attached below is a letter we sent on the need to do sufficient mitigation for lost farmland.



January 9, 2006

Coyote Valley Task Force

Dear Members of the Coyote Valley Task Force;

The Committee for Green Foothills makes the following recommendations for the agricultural land mitigation strategy options:

1. The agricultural assessment discussed in the city's agricultural land conservation and mitigation memo should be done now, in the Specific Plan EIR process, and not at some later point as the memo appears to imply. The decision to convert the land from agricultural uses to other uses will be taken at the time that the Specific Plan is approved (if that happens), even though the actual conversion waits until later. There is therefore no reason to wait in doing the agricultural assessment. Any waiting would constitute illegal segmentation of the environmental analysis. Furthermore, the assessment of the land’s agricultural value looks in part upon the use of adjoining parcels. If this agricultural assessment and development is done in piecemeal fashion, then at some midway point, the piecemeal loss of Coyote Valley farmland will be used as an excuse to claim that the remaining agricultural lands in Coyote Valley have no agricultural significance.

2. The city should not alter the LESA agricultural assessment by allowing exceptions where land rated at a score of greater-than 39 points could be converted away from agriculture without being deemed a significant loss. The city's justification for this on page 4 of its memo states that the General Plan goal is to avoid "premature" conversion of agricultural lands, with the implication that when it is "mature" then conversion is not significant. This is an improper environmental analysis. The loss of agricultural land is either significant or it is not, and whatever goals are considered for the use of that land subsequently do not matter. Those goals are only relevant for deciding whether other overriding considerations outweighs the significant environmental impact. In other words, whatever goals that the city has with a project does not change whether the impacts of reaching those goals are significant.

3. The four strategy options may give an unintentionally misleading impression that the city is equally free to choose between the different options. Environmental analysis does not work like that. Either an impact is significant or it is not, no matter what the city may wish. Furthermore, CEQA requires that the city adopt any feasible mitigations for impacts that are determined to be significant.

· If preservation of agricultural land is a feasible mitigation for the significant loss of agricultural land, the city has no choice - it must go ahead and impose preservation requirements. We believe that the "no change" Strategy Option I fails to meet legal requirements as established in recent case law cited in our letter to the city, dated July 1, 2005 (part of the Task Force packet). Therefore, this option is not available to the city as a legal choice.

·We can see no credible analysis concluding that a preservation of less agricultural land than the land that is lost to be something that reduces the impact to a less-than-significant level. Therefore, Strategy Option II is also not a legal option.

·If the city believes that Strategy Option III is available to it, the city must explain why preserving land at a ratio of 1:1 or greater is not feasible. Absent a fully-adequate explanation, Strategy Option III is not a legal option. Given the availability of farmland in and near to Coyote Valley, we do not believe the city can justify this option.

4. The city must acknowledge that instead of adopting overriding considerations, it can also choose to reject the project. Such acknowledgment is missing from the city memo.

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt

Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Joint position on Coyote Valley Farmland Conservation

We submitted the document below to San Jose today.


(And Happy New Year, everyone!)


Principles Regarding Farmland Conservation in Coyote Valley

January 4, 2006

The Friends of the Coyote Valley Greenbelt, The Sierra Club, Loma Prieta Chapter, Committee for Green Foothills, Greenbelt Alliance and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society are all organizations concerned with smart growth, sustainable land use and preservation of open space. We believe that the following farmland conservation principles must guide any proposals for the future of Coyote Valley:

Require mitigation for converted farmland

· Since developers propose converting Coyote Valley farmland to other uses, the developers must mitigate the lost farmland by funding the preservation of farmland on at least a one-for-one acre basis.

· All developed properties should be subject to the mitigation requirement, regardless of the subsequent use of the property. For policy reasons, some properties such as affordable housing may carry a lower share of the mitigation burden, but other properties must then make up the difference.

· Funding should be sufficient to acquire lands or easements for agriculture as well as a program of land/easement acquisition and management in the Greenbelt. The funding should also support programs to promote agricultural activities. The proposed $15 million is not adequate for these objectives.

· The mitigation requirement must be part of any Specific Plan for the Coyote Valley.

Where mitigation should occur

· To the extent possible, mitigation farmland should be secured in the Coyote Valley Greenbelt and other non-hillside lands within the San Jose Sphere of Influence.

· Should insufficient farmland be secured in these areas, only then nearby farmland in Santa Clara County would be considered appropriate mitigation for the remaining acreage.

· The South Coyote Valley Greenbelt is but one component of a true greenbelt. A protected valley floor including farmland protections along with protected hillsides creates a complete greenbelt. The Specific Plan must address plans to protect the hillsides from development.

An Implementation Agency should be identified or created.

· To assure long range viability and public accountability, the entity responsible for agricultural mitigation land acquisition or easements and related administrative support facilities should be a public agency.

·The Specific Plan must include guideline requirements for the agency, including a financial structure to hold funds until the agency is operative.

Our various organizations may have differing views on the future of Coyote Valley, and this joint position paper should not be considered a joint statement on whether development should occur in Coyote Valley. What our organizations share is the position that any specific plan that moves forward must include the preceding farmland conservation principles. Open space protection is a critical component of any smart growth specific plan. These principles focus on agricultural land conservation and do not represent the full suite of principles that should be incorporated into any Specific Plan for Coyote Valley, such as affordable housing, transit accessibility and hillside protection.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Acknowledging both sides of the Stanford trails debate

Copied below is a letter that the Committee for Green Foothills sent to the Palo Alto Weekly. The link to the online Weekly letter is here, and this was sent in response to a letter from Stanford University printed here.


Examining evidence

The community groups opposing the expansion of the Alpine Road sidewalk do not act like Stanford and ignore the evidence supporting the other side's position; we acknowledge it.

A single checkmark in one table of the 1995 Trails Master Plan indicates the relevant part of the C-1 Trail was "completed," and this is Stanford's entire argument (Weekly letter from Jean McCown, Dec. 16).

By contrast, the Trails Map created for the Master Plan does not show the C-1 Trail as complete, but it does show the trail in Santa Clara County (therefore not the Alpine Road sidewalk), and shows the trail as not being alongside a road. The Map conflicts with the checkmark -- one of them is wrong.

Because the 1995 Map was changed from the earlier 1982 Trails Master Plan and even from a 1994 draft version, the best conclusion is that in 1995 the county expressly rejected the Alpine Road sidewalk as the C-1 Trail, but failed to remove a single checkmark in one table.

Stanford is well aware of the 1995 Map and chose not to mention it in its Dec. 16 letter. Readers should remember this when reading Stanford's justifications of its environmental policies.

As for Santa Clara County, the decision to give up a real C-1 Trail and expand a sidewalk instead indicates that ignoring the public interest is less politically painful than holding a powerful university to its promises. The county might even be right -- it's up to the community to determine whether this action is acceptable.

Brian Schmidt, Committee for Green Foothills
East Bayshore Road, Palo Alto