Law Taps Non-Ballot Approach to Greenbelt Protection : Farmland: New state statute would help local governments, nonprofit groups buy development rights to protect against urban projects.


While Ventura city voters debate preserving greenbelts through ballot initiatives, a new state law aims to protect farmland through a very different means--by buying development rights to the land.

The law, signed Sunday by Gov. Pete Wilson, would help local governments or nonprofit organizations purchase voluntary "conservation easements" on farmland. Those easements would guarantee that the land be used solely for agriculture, protecting the land from encroaching urban development.

Participating landowners would retain full ownership of their land, including the right to sell the property. Unlike the Ventura initiatives, which would require voter approval for development projects on farmland, participation would be voluntary.

There is a catch. The law does not specify where the program will get its money.

But Ventura farmer Bob Tobias likes the leeway the new law would give farmers while protecting dwindling agricultural space.

"This sounds more like a partnership where you say, 'I like what you've got, and you like what I've got,' and that's the way business should be done in the community," he said. "It's a great notion, and it's the kind of thing we need to do."

It is, in fact, the kind of thing the Ventura County Agricultural Land Trust and Conservancy was created to do in 1992. Under the new law, the conservancy could apply to the state for money to purchase development rights to local land.

"I think it could have a real positive impact," said Earl McPhail, the county's agricultural commissioner. "On some of the ground that is prime [real estate] or close to city limits, this would go a long ways to keeping it the way it is now."

The law will create an agricultural land stewardship program, within the state's Department of Conservation, which will collect state and federal funding to purchase easements. Nonprofit organizations or city and county governments could then apply to the program for funds.

The easements, bought from landowners, would restrict use of the land to agriculture for 25 years. Although participating farmers could sell affected property, the buyers would have to follow the same restrictions.

The lack of funding does not discourage program supporters.

Erik Vink, California field director for the American Farmland Trust, said several measures before the Legislature could help pay for the program. The Farmland Trust, a national nonprofit group dedicated to preserving farmland, wrote the bill creating this program and was one of several agricultural and conservation groups that lobbied for its passage, Vink said.

"We don't have the money today, but we're pretty enthusiastic that it will come," he said.

A lack of funds has hindered Ventura's agricultural land trust, McPhail said. "A lot depends on how many dollars are coming forth, because our ground is pretty expensive."

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