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Farm-Saving Plan Could Yield Harvest of Homes

Times Staff Writer

Although Bob Kinoshita says the 58 acres in San Juan Capistrano that he and his two brothers have farmed for three decades is “like a backyard garden patch” compared to bigger spreads, the land has been good to the Kinoshita family.

But in an age when strawberries, corn, peppers and other crops fetch a paltry return relative to the value of the land they spring from, and when spending life on the family farm is the last thing your kids want to do, it’s time to get out, he said.

“Each year, farming for us is getting harder and harder,” Bob Kinoshita said one evening after a day in the fields. “It’s getting tough to make the ends meet with the costs of fuel, labor and all the other expenses always going up.”

While the Kinoshita family and its dozen or so workers have grown berries in the spring and rows of white sweet corn in the winter, they have watched their sleepy little mission town grow. And grow.

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All about them, vast housing tracts, schools and industrial parks have sprung up where once there were only row crops and farmhouses.

But watching is about all the Kinoshitas can do, because for the last eight years a city ordinance has prevented them from developing the land, now worth an estimated $9.6 million.

Concerned that unchecked development would destroy San Juan Capistrano’s agricultural heritage, the City Council in 1977 passed an unusual ordinance banning any non-agricultural use of 230 acres of farmland, including the Kinoshita property.

A year later, the affected property owners put the question to voters with a ballot measure. The voters favored the ban on development by a margin of 2 to 1.

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More recently, the family has petitioned the council for the right to build up to five residential units per acre. That spurred the City Council to form an ad hoc committee of city officials, along with a member of the Kinoshita family, to investigate the problem.

Now, after several months of meetings, the committee has hatched a plan it hopes will make everyone happy.

Plan Presented to City Council

Under the plan, sent to the council last week, the Kinoshitas could sell the rights to develop 282 residential units--the number the farm could have accommodated--to builders.

Those developers then would be allowed to build up to 282 more homes than would normally be permitted on their own land elsewhere in the city. The Kinoshitas would be compensated for the lost potential of their undeveloped land and the 58-acre farm would be preserved.

“Basically it would be a three-party agreement between the (developers and Kinoshita family) and the city,” said Thomas Tomlinson, a city planner. Still, any deal worked out between the farmers and developers would be subject to Planning Commission and City Council approval.

The density shift scheme, which has been used by some East Coast cities caught in similar binds, is the best solution to Kinoshita’s problem, Councilman Anthony Bland said.

“We went into the operation with the idea of trying to find an equitable solution for everyone,” Bland said. “The farmer, too, should get an equitable return if (he) isn’t able to make it as a farmer.”

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A 1982 appraisal set the value of Kinoshita’s land, assuming five residential units per acre, at $167,000 per acre, Tomlinson said, a total of $9.6 million.

City officials and Bob Kinoshita agree that a development swap isn’t going to happen tomorrow, and perhaps not even next year. Developers would have to be found and the deal would have to survive the scrutiny of civic planners and other officials and new rounds of public hearings.

Still, Kinoshita expects that he and his brothers, who range in age from 52 to 55, will be pretty close to their 60th birthdays by the time a plan gels, permitting them to “get a fair return on the land without having to work sunup to sundown.”

“We don’t want to make a half a million a year, we just don’t want to worry about where our next paycheck is coming from,” he said.


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