In particular, the Local Agency Formation Commission questioned in an Aug. 7 letter the removal of a provision that would have preserved agricultural land in proportion with the size of the proposed KDN Retail Center and Arambel Business Park — a move that some local land advocates say could save the developer tens of thousands of dollars an acre.
The 1,100-acre project would provide space for light industrial and retail businesses on land that is now farmed. The agreement originally called for developers to protect the same amount of agricultural land elsewhere in the county.
LAFCo questioned in the Aug. 7 letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Irrigator, why the land preservation language disappeared between a draft of the project’s environmental impact report and the final version.
Patterson City Manager Rod Butler said this week that the requirement was removed at the recommendation of the planning commission, as a result of discussion during a July meeting of that panel.
In the letter from LAFCo, Executive Director Marjorie Blom asked how the city and developers planned to make up for the loss of the agricultural land. The agency had requested in August 2011 that the city include agricultural mitigation considerations for the project’s environmental impact report.
“Please describe the circumstances that have changed prior to the drafting of the (environmental impact report) and the removal of the mitigation measure,” Blom wrote in the Aug. 7 letter. “The applicant should demonstrate, with substantial evidence, why the mitigation measure is no longer considered feasible.”
Blom used a simile this week to explain her reaction to the lack of agricultural mitigation details in the final environmental impact report.
“It’s like going to the grocery store and buying apples, only to get home and find you have oranges,” she said. “Why do we have oranges?”
According to Arambel project manager Joe Hollowell, the mitigation measure acts as a tax that could make the land too expensive to attract businesses.
“We have to be more competitive than other communities,” he said. “We can’t be equal (in cost) to other communities, because we don’t have the things that some companies have. You have to be careful how much you burden business projects.”
Hollowell said the removal of the agricultural mitigation had to do with “overriding factors,” such as net revenue for the city, which a city report estimated at $3.5 million.
The report stated that the expansion of the business park could create 10,000 jobs during the 20-plus years required to develop it fully.
Former Modesto City Councilman Denny Jackman, who heads the farmland preservation group Stamp Out Sprawl, said reinstating the land preservation could add $20,000 an acre or more to the cost of the project.
Whether the mitigation is legally required, he said, depends on an interpretation of the California Environmental Quality Act. Jackman said mitigation is required as part of the review process set forth in the law if the environment is substantially impacted.
He said developers should not be allowed to continue to pave over prime agricultural land without a fight.
“At what point are they going to reflect the importance of ag land to the area?” he asked.
But Patterson Mayor Luis Molina said the land slated for the business park’s expansion wasn’t prime, but lower-grade. He said he understood, however, the principal of not building on the most productive agricultural land.
“I think we need to talk about preserving better grades of soils and still dedicate land to creating jobs,” he said.
Councilwoman Annette Smith said jobs are of the highest importance to Patterson.
“Any community will waive the one-to-one agriculture mitigation in favor of jobs,” she said. “We’re fighting for jobs with other communities like Tracy.”
The Arambel project would provide space for light industrial businesses, similar to the CVS and Kohl’s distribution centers already in West Patterson Business Park. The 104-acre KDN center would include space for retail stores.
Together, they would expand West Patterson Business Park and the city’s physical boundaries by nearly a third in four phases during about 20 years.
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