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The Best Use of the Land

February 18, 1986

"We have the right to sell our land for the highest and best use," a San Bernardino County dairyman and real estate broker commented the other day to our reporter, William Trombley. "That's the American way."

He was wrong if, by "highest and best use," he meant the plan that would bring him the most money per acre. He was right, however, if he meant that use which best conforms to the master plan for the county.

In the political pressures building in San Bernardino County, as some dairy farmers fight to abandon the agricultural preserve that covers their land, fundamental rules are being ignored. Some 80% of the owners of 20% of the land in the contested area insist that the voice of democracy has been heard through their support for an end to the agricultural preserve. If that were true, if dollar return were the sole criterion, the result would be anarchy, lower values for most, and, most important, a neglect of the public good.

This is not a test in San Bernardino County alone. It is a test facing Ventura County to the north, San Diego and Riverside Counties to the south, as the megalopolis of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, spills over, and as the search for affordable housing leads thousands farther afield.

In this confusion, Los Angeles has little to offer except case study after case study of how not to do it. The appropriate tools of master planning, land use zoning that controls population, open space, agricultural preserves, have been more visible for their absence than for their application. But both Orange and Ventura Counties have experimented usefully in open-space and green-belt and farm-preserve plans that could provide San Bernardino with models.

There is a consensus in San Bernardino that the whole of the 17,000-acre "dairylands" agricultural preserve will one day be, as they say, "developed," meaning malls, freeways, housing tracts and, they must hope, places of employment. If that is so, the people of the county are not helpless in guiding that development. The courts have sustained the authority of local governments to use zoning to restrain, to mandate uses that are not, measured in fiscal return, "the highest and best use," to protect farms with the same zeal as shopping centers. And the courts have been correct. For there is an interest of the community beyond the immediate interest of the present property owner.

Planners throughout Southern California, as they determine uses of the scarce remaining open space, are charting the long-term, not the short-term, and with it the quality of life for generations to come. The citizens as a whole must be vigilant about the definition that the planners apply of "the highest and best use."

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