Environmentalists Critical : Bradley Bill Would Open Coast Farmland to Builders

Times Staff Writer

A North County assemblyman who has tried to abolish the California Coastal Commission now wants to make a one-word change in state law that would make it easier for developers to build on thousands of acres of coastal farmland.

San Marcos Republican Bill Bradley has introduced a bill to amend a key part of the Coastal Act by changing the way the state calculates whether farming is economically viable on coastal land.

A finding that the land is no longer money-making in agriculture is required before prime farmland in the coastal zone can be developed.

Bradley says the change is needed because current law unfairly holds land in farming or, if farming isn't feasible, forces the landowners to let it lie fallow. He says such restrictions amount to government confiscation of private land.

But lobbyists for environmental groups and Coastal Commission analysts say Bradley's bill would significantly impair the commission's ability to preserve prime agricultural lands along the coast from San Diego to the Oregon state line.

Restrictions on coastal farmland in Carlsbad, which Bradley has worked consistently to ease, may not be affected by his most recent proposal. But the assemblyman said the bill was written more narrowly than he intended, and he now plans to amend the legislation so that all coastal farmland, rather than just that land considered prime, would be affected. Bradley said he hoped such a change would make it easier for Carlsbad landowners to build on their land.

The Coastal Act's restrictions on the conversion of land from agricultural to urban uses have been a source of tension between developers and environmentalists for many years.

Builders and many farmers have said they should be able to build on their land whenever local elected officials approve such development, without the added regulation of the Coastal Act. Environmentalists and the Coastal Commission's staff have usually argued for the preservation of as much farmland as possible along the coast.

Three years ago, Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) won passage of legislation which, for the first time, provided guidelines for determining when land is no longer feasible to farm.

McClintock's legislation required a study of the revenue and expenses of farms in the area of a requested development. The costs of supplies, equipment and labor--but not the cost of land--are to be included in the study.

Now, Bradley wants to change the law to include, rather than exclude, the cost of the land. If land is a cost of doing business, then it ought to be included in any analysis of that business' viability, he argues.

Though Coastal Commission figures show the proposal could eventually affect at least 90,000 acres along the state's coast, Bradley said he knows of no specific landowner who has requested the change or would benefit from it. He said the bill was his idea.

"This would make it easier for a developer to say, 'Hey, this land isn't farmland any more,' " Bradley said. But he added that the bill also would favor the serious farmer who just can't make ends meet any more.

"If it's not economical to farm, if a guy wants to sell his farm for non-farming purposes, and they don't let him, they're confiscating his land," Bradley said.

Environmentalists and Coastal Commission analysts, however, argue that Bradley's proposal would prompt developers to speculate in coastal farmland. Paying a high price for the land would make it easier to declare the land unable to support farming and thus open it for development.

"Some guy could come along, offer the farmer a lot of money for his land, then not farm it," said Bill Allayaud, the Coastal Commission's lobbyist in Sacramento. "Then, he could say 'I want to convert this, and my costs are high, including the costs of the land, which are astronomic.' It's silly."

Though the commission has not taken a position on Bradley's bill, it opposed the 1984 McClintock legislation until that bill was amended to remove the cost of land from the viability test.

"Introducing the land issue really explodes that compromise," said Larry Orman, executive director of People for Open Space, a nine-county nonprofit agency based in San Francisco. "This seems to be nothing more than a sop to developers and speculative landowners to let them get out easier."

Others concede that it might be wise to allow farmers who cannot make ends meet to develop their land. But they suggest finding a method that would not encourage speculation, perhaps by limiting the use of any escape clause to farmers who have been in business for a certain number of years.

Bradley, a civil engineer and former San Marcos city manager, joined the Legislature in 1982. Since then, he has tried without success to abolish the Coastal Commission and later tried, then withdrew, a proposal to remove 5,000 acres of Carlsbad farmland from Coastal Commission jurisdiction.

In 1984, Bradley authored legislation that eliminated a Coastal Commission program allowing some developers to build on their farmland if they first paid a $27,000-per-acre fee to subsidize other farmers. Bradley's bill eliminated the fee system and required the state to refund $600,000 developers had already paid into the program.

Coastal Commission planners in San Diego, however, said no Carlsbad land would be affected by Bradley's bill in its current form because none of it is defined as prime agricultural land. In addition, most of the land in the coastal zone in Carlsbad, including much of the controversial proposed Pacific Rim resort on the Batiquitos Lagoon, is already included in a local coastal plan administered by Carlsbad. That plan includes its own provisions for the conversion of farmland to development.

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