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Fee designed to preserve ag land

3 possible Manteca projects could benefit

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Fee designed to preserve ag land

A farm worker checks sprinklers in a field of strawberries just east of Manteca.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin


POSTED October 5, 2009 2:32 a.m.

Vineyards, almond orchards and strawberry fields will disappear when the proposed 1,049-acre Austin Road Business Park is fully developed.

On the flip side, a mandated ag preservation fee put in place by the City Council in response to litigation from environmental groups means Manteca will be in a position to use up to $14.6 million from the project for efforts to preserve farmland in perpetuity. It also means that future home buyers in a typical median subdivision of five units per acre will have roughly $2,900 of the purchase price of their home go to the ag fee account.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider adopting an increase in the San Joaquin County Multi-Species Habitat Conservation and Open Space Plan development fee. It isn’t that they have a choice as various environmental groups will sue large developers who don’t pay the fee. As a result, it is simply a pass-on fee that Manteca adopts as the middle man between the court settlement and developers.

The fee applies to any project with 350 acres or more.

Manteca’s land conversion fee structure starting Oct. 15 will include higher fees:
•going from $6,511 to $7,307 for an acre of open space.
•going from $13,022 to $14,615 for an acre of agricultural or natural land.
•going from $34,958 to $42,071 for an acre of grassland vernal pools.
•going from $69,858 to $80,766 for an acre of wetted vernal pools.

The fees are designed to allow the purchase of open space and farmlands to protect them from development. The land purchases can be made anywhere in San Joaquin County.

There are no plans now for Manteca to undertake a local project. It is due to the fact not that much in fees have been collected and those primarily came from older projects such as Bianchi Ranch north of Woodward Park where it was around $1,000 an acre starting in 2001. The fee, at that time, was driven by city policy and not environmental litigation which has since caused it to increase 14-fold.

Mayor Willie Weatherford, though, thinks it is time to look at ways that money can remain in Manteca and improve the quality of life while at the same time protecting farmland, open space and wetlands.

Among possible projects are:
•Planting almond orchards to the west of Highway 99 and the railroad tracks to create a 100-foot deep farming greenbelt between Manteca and Ripon to break up what is one day expected to be continuous urbanization.
• Securing 200 acres and creating wetlands and/or a natural regional park in southwest Manteca near the San Joaquin River. Treated wastewater from the Manteca plant could be used to provide water in summer to create a forest of high water use trees such as willows to generate oxygen while recharging the water table.
•Working in partnership with the Manteca Unified School District to secure a larger parcel for future expansion of school farming operations.

Organizations such as the Land Use Alliance have been proponents of buying farming easements in perpetuity on ag land far away from urban areas. The way it works is existing farmers get paid a lump sum in exchange for deed restricting future use of their property for ag uses only.

Weatherford would rather see the money collected in Manteca stay in Manteca.

All three of the ideas that have been bounced around allow it to be used locally. Unlike other farming operations, orchards can co-exist fairly well with urbanization especially in an area along Highway 99 that will be adjacent to a business park.

The 100-foot wide corridor is also where Manteca at one point talked about extending the Tidewater Bike Path south to Ripon although no formal plan has been adopted.

Projects with less than 350 acres are not subject to the fees.

A typical subdivision that could be part of a 350-acre plus project with a yield of five single family homes per acre, the cost attached to each new home would be just over $2,900 apiece.

The cost drops per dwelling unit with higher density.

Industrial, business park, and retail projects also would absorb the fee at the same rate per acre as residents.
The council “voluntarily” increased the fees a year ago.

The last developer that took on the alliance of habitat and ag preservation groups in Tracy spent more than $1.6 million on legal costs and actual fees in trying to avoid paying the fee. Had they used the pre-April 2007 fee schedule the cost would have been $300,000. The new fees for the same Tracy project would take the conversion fee to around $1 million.

State law requires habitat preservation. Pro-habitat groups are aggressively pursuing the implementation of the directive.

The highest per acre fees - $42,071 for grassland vernal pools and $80,766 for wetted vernal pools - are not a major concern for Manteca area developers. Usually they are found in areas with strata of clay and other relatively non-porous soil on rolling land.

Vernal pools are unique to the Central Valley. Small pools are created from retained winter water that hosts unique species of small flowers during the initial warm weeks of spring.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com

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