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Effort to Restrict Farmland Sales Sparks Uproar


MODESTO — Here in walnut and almond country, the locals conjure up Los Angeles as the dreadful specter, the easy emblem for what ails California's agricultural heartland.

If only L.A. had held on to its farming roots, they say. If only its planners and politicians had the gumption to tell the real estate developers "enough."

It is probably too facile to say that the 1980s ushered in the Los Angeles-ization of the San Joaquin Valley. But clearly there are echoes here of the post-World War II San Fernando Valley.

Now, hoping to blunt these forces, Stanislaus County voters have taken the extraordinary step of putting a measure on the ballot that declares 400,000 acres of prime farmland--40% of the open land here--off limits to developers.

It is the first vote of its kind in the growth-giddy San Joaquin Valley and the most far-reaching of the local ballot measures to be decided around California on Nov. 3. These include a proposed Los Angeles-style card casino in Santa Clara, a ban on panhandling in San Francisco and limits on subdividing of farmland in Marin County.

If the agriculture preservation measure prevails here--over intense farmer and building industry opposition--it probably will pop up in other valley counties where vineyards and orchards continue to vanish under the march of new suburbs.

"There are no more San Joaquin Valleys left," said Measure F supporter Peggy Mensinger, former mayor of Modesto. "This is some of the best farmland in the world, and if you pave it over, you've lost it forever."

Farmers who trace back three generations on this land fear urban encroachment almost as much as they resent city folk telling them what to do. They say Measure F would make them slaves of the soil, stripped of the right to sell out to developers if the going gets too tough.

Amid water shortages, pesticide restrictions and a crop surplus, farmers say the last thing they need is more constraints on their property rights.

"I'm going to die on my land, and I hope my children and grandchildren die on it too," said Cy Young, 64, whose great-grandfather was the first white man to settle this county in 1844. "But we want to be the ones who decide to protect it. Not Peggy Mensinger."

Measure F is four pages of fine print written with a lawyer's challenge in mind. Indeed, proponents had to take the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors to court to get it on the ballot, and opponents already have sued to block the measure from ever taking effect.

Basically, it ties the hands of county supervisors for a 20-year period, removing their power to change zoning on farms located within irrigation districts. It is this flat land with a ready water supply that developers and speculators target first, supporters say.

If the measure passes, a farmer inside the protected zone could subdivide his land only by a vote of the electorate or if supervisors deem the land unsuitable for agriculture.

"What's 'unsuitable for agriculture' mean?" asked Donn Viss, an almond grower and opponent of the measure who was interviewed in a Modesto union hall. "You give me enough water and fertilizer, and I can raise a crop on this carpet."

Big signs opposing the measure blotch the almond and walnut orchards outside town: "Save Our Farming Heritage. Vote No on F."

"That's doublespeak," said Larry Hooker, a farmer who supports the measure. "These farmers don't want to save their heritage. What they want to save is their right to turn their farms into subdivisions and golf courses."

Paul Van Konynenburg, a third-generation peach grower who opposes the measure, said developers have already approached him about a fancy subdivision and golf course on 650 of his family's 900 acres. The project, put on hold by the recession, would be prohibited under Measure F.

"It development happens, it happens," he said. "But we've invested heavily in the farm. We replanted and put in drip irrigation at a cost of $6,000 an acre. That's being a good steward."

He argues that supporters of the measure, under the banner of the Save Stanislaus Area Farm Economy, are more interested in finding a tool to stall growth. The county population approaches 400,000, up from 266,000 in 1980.

But Mensinger argues that Los Angeles-style growth is replacing a healthy farm economy with a sickly service economy. "Farming is a real economy that produces real products," she said. "And growth doesn't pay for itself. All the fast-food restaurants and housing tracts can't replace what we already have."

Left muddled in the debate is the fact that enough land already is earmarked for development to sustain growth for decades. And the life span of the measure is only 20 years. "It's probably too mild," said proponent Hooker. "But we had to start somewhere."

Marin County's version of farmland preservation restricts development for 30 years. Like Stanislaus County's measure, it allows zoning changes if approved by a majority of the voters.

In Santa Clara, the issue is not Los Angeles-style growth but a card casino patterned after the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens. Bicycle Club entrepreneur George Hardie has spent nearly $200,000--the most ever in a local campaign--to win voter approval of a 200-table card room and 350-seat entertainment center.

In San Francisco, Proposition J would make it a crime to panhandle aggressively. Opponents say the measure is too broad, violates the 1st Amendment and would do nothing to curtail crime.

In Santa Cruz County, Measure A would direct local officials to support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

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