Several local advisory bodies are considering a proposal this week from Peninsula Open Space Trust and Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to amend local zoning ordinances regarding lot line adjustments.
The amendments would change San Mateo County’s Local Coastal Program to exempt public recreation projects from two zoning requirements: parcel size limitations and a requirement to grant perpetual agricultural easements to the county. At Monday’s Agricultural Advisory Committee meeting, members raised concerns that the changes will have long-term effects that could be detrimental to local farming.
Open space district Public Affairs Manager Kori Skinner said the objective of the amendment is to create consistency among the state and local laws. While the state law includes the two exemptions for public recreation projects and public agencies, the county’s does not. That’s why, Skinner said, the two groups are asking the county to bring its zoning ordinances in line with state rules to exempt MROSD and POST from needing a Coastal Development Permit for property divisions.
“The county did not recognize that state exemption,” Skinner said. “So, as we started to build trails on the coast; we started hitting this problem.”
Skinner said the purpose of a lot line adjustment is to carve up land parcels by their uses — such as farmland versus rangeland — to maximize their potential. For MROSD, that means preserving rangeland and eventually opening it to public recreation. For farmers, Skinner said, it means keeping farming on prime agricultural land.
“It gives ... the landowning families some flexibility to put that land to its highest and best use,” Skinner said. “It doesn't take land out of production; it brings it into production.”
Marti Tedesco, POST’s chief marketing officer, agreed. She said POST’s focus is on investing in viable farmland. According to Tedesco, POST will often purchase farmland, put an agricultural easement on it that makes it more affordable and then sell it to a farmer who will use the land productively and responsibly.
“Farmers can be tremendous stewards of the land,” Tedesco said. “We think that these regulatory adjustments will allow us to get 400 to 430 acres more to farmers than we can under the current regulation.”
But committee members at Tuesday’s Agricultural Advisory Committee meeting had questions and concerns about the effects of the changes on farmers and on the future of farmland on the Coastside.
Before moving forward with a recommendation for the county Board of Supervisors, the ag committee wants MROSD and POST to spell out how many properties could be affected by the change, what protections for farmers and local agriculture exist already in the lot line adjustment process, and who is enforcing these protections. The group’s intention is to clarify, and hopefully even codify, protections for farmers.
One major priority the committee expressed was affordability, so farming families can stay in the area long-term. Committee Vice Chair B.J. Burns said because of high costs, many farmers would rather lease land from POST than buy it. Burns said these amendments, while intended to free up more farmland for purchase, could instead leave viable agricultural land empty when no farmers can afford to buy it.
POST Farmland Project Manager Ben Wright responded by saying that the new rules will allow POST to make the land cheaper, which will attract more buyers.
“I talked to some farmers who want to get into the business, but they can’t afford it,” Wright said. “This would fix that. If (the amendment) moves forward, you will see some sales.”
Skinner said even if the changes are made, MROSD would still have to go through the county’s public process when it buys and sells land.
“This zoning amendment doesn’t change that public process at all,” Skinner said.
Both Tedesco and Skinner said communicating with farmers about the proposed changes is a priority.
“We need to do a better job of clarifying for the (farming)
community what our goals and objectives are and how they align with theirs,” Tedesco said. “This is a ‘we’ situation. … I think it’s going to take more dialogue.”