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Supervisors extend ag easement purchase program
Thursday, December 26th, 2013
Issue 52, Volume 17.
A 5-0 Board of Supervisors vote Dec. 4 directed staff to acquire easements from the 16 properties not funded during the PACE pilot program earlier this year while referring the acquisition costs of those properties to budget, directed preparation of a mitigation program as an expanded component of the PACE program, and directed to budget annual expenditures to cover placing additional properties into the PACE program.
"This is exactly what we intended would happen," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "It is being successful."
The Board of Supervisors approved an update of the countyís general plan in August 2011. That update directed staff to develop a pilot Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) program to compensate willing property owners for placing an agricultural easement on their property which would limit future uses and eliminate future development.
The PACE program includes three eligibility requirements. The property must have been actively farmed or ranched for at least two years prior to the application, the general plan update must have reduced the propertyís density, and the property must have had the ability to be subdivided prior to the general plan update.
Between 500 and 600 property owners expressed interest in taking part in the program. Sixty property owners applied, and the applications were ranked on criteria established by the PACE Advisory Group. The primary ranking factor was the density reduction due to the general plan update. Other ranking criteria included agricultural viability and the ability to contribute to the assemblage of the Multiple Species Conservation Program.
The pilot program involved a July 17 Board of Supervisors vote to approve the purchase of five properties consisting of 10 parcels. The $2 million allocation for the PACE pilot program included $212,000 for independent third-party appraisals and administrative expenses as well as $1,694,000 to purchase the easements totaling 738 acres and $15,000 for title and escrow expenses.
The appraisal to determine the value of the agricultural easements used the California Farmland Conservancy Program traditional approach which estimates the market value of the land if unencumbered and the market value of the land with the conservation easement and then determines the easement value by subtracting the encumbered appraisal from the value of the unencumbered property.
The 10 properties with the highest rankings were appraised; the property owners ranked second and fifth declined the easement offers while five property owners provided "willing seller letters," including two Fallbrook ownerships with a combined 138.17 acres. The acceptance of those five property owners exhausted the funding, so offers were not made for the remaining ranked properties and appraisals were not made for the properties not ranked in the top 10.
"Even though I voted against the general plan, I think this was a good product," said Supervisor Bill Horn.
"The pilot program was an absolutely unqualified success,"said San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director Eric Larson.
"Itís a great success story for the county," said Supervisor Dave Roberts. "I would like to make this a permanent program because it does such great work in protecting farmland."
The 2013-14 budget process allocated $620,000 to complete purchase of the 10 ranked properties. Two of those property owners declined the countyís offers while the owner of a 44-acre property in Lakeside accepted the offer. The remaining $560,000 is available, along with $94,000 from the original $2 million allocation.
The additional 16 properties include one in Fallbrook and one in Bonsall as well as four in Valley Center, two in Alpine, two in unincorporated El Cajon, two in Jamul, and one apiece in Borrego Springs, Campo, unincorporated Escondido, and Santa Ysabel. An estimated $1,460,000 would be needed to acquire those properties which total 517 acres, so an additional $820,000 would be required.
"We want you to move forward on these 16 remaining parcels," Larson said.
"Itís so critical that we compensate only willing folks, willing property owners," Dave Roberts said. "Nobody is forced to do this. Itís an option for them."
The supervisors directed staff to refer the $820,000 need to the 2014-15 budget process. A mitigation program which would allow applicants to purchase PACE credits for off-site mitigation to agricultural impacts could be the source of that funding, although such a program would be created separately from the budget process.
"I think that we could have a sustainable program here," said Supervisor Ron Roberts.
"I think this is another tool for part of agriculture," Horn said.
Horn, who grows avocados and citrus in Valley Center, noted that farmers would like to see their land remain in agriculture. "Farmers are taking care of their land and they continue to farm it. This is just another tool for them," he said.
"Itís hard work, but itís a way of life for many people who want to pass that on to their offspring," Jacob said.
"If you establish a permanent PACE program, San Diego County becomes a leader in the state in farmland protection," Larson said. "Letís make this a permanent program in San Diego County."
The support for the pilot program from landowners may lead to additional applications. "Part of it is outreach to the property owner, too," Jacob said.
More than 7,000 notices were mailed to property owners who were identified as being potentially eligible for the program, and recipients were also invited to participate in an on-line survey.
"Weíre going to need to re-open this process every year or every couple of years," Larson said. "Now that youíve shown that it works, I think youíre going to have additional people coming along."
"I do think that we should make this a permanent program," said Supervisor Greg Cox. "I think itís important to do whatever we can to preserve the agricultural production weíre growing here in San Diego County."
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