Paving Over a Farming Paradise

California's Central Valley is at once the world's richest farm belt and one of America's fastest-growing new urban regions. Each year more than 20,000 acres of fertile ground are gobbled up by real estate development. From Bakersfield to Redding, suburbs are sprouting on land that once produced more milk, tomatoes, grapes, almonds, peaches, apricots, figs, pistachios and cantaloupes than any other part of the world. A recent report by Times staff writer Mark Arax points out the problems of this pattern. The time to change the state's urban planning laws has arrived.

Whether it takes place in Kern, Calaveras or Shasta counties, urban sprawl is no longer a local issue. Agriculture remains such a crucial part of California's economy that state government planners need to step in to slow housing growth that comes at the expense of orchards, vineyards and other agricultural production. Statute reform is needed to make it easier to preserve farmland and limit urbanization.

This task can be accomplished only through the combined efforts of the Legislature and the governor's office. Central Valley land speculators, city councils and county boards, in their eagerness for expansion, have paved over 12% of the valley's original cropland. If the trend continues at the same pace, in half a lifetime the number of valley residents will triple to 15 million.

Unless the state finds a workable way to manage growth there will be major repercussions for the entire nation, which has spent billions transforming the valley from desert and marsh into an agricultural oasis that provides 25% of America's table food.

This urban development has a negative impact on city dwellers as well as farmers. New housing tracts and commercial enterprises cost much more in services (like sewers, streets, police, fire protection) than what they fetch in property and sales taxes. In some areas overbuilding has hurt the real estate business.

At the start of his first term in office, Gov. Pete Wilson promised to tackle the issue of urban sprawl. In a major policy speech he spoke of managing all the state's resources better and preserving the land. Unfortunately he has done little on the issue. It is time he got started.

California as a whole should challenge itself to stabilize the Central Valley by the year 2010. To meet the test, our urban planners will have to provide the best information available on the trends and the consequences of this explosion in the heart of the state.

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