Farming groups split on backing sprawl initiative on November ballot

Withdrawal of support reveals division in agriculture community.

August 27, 2010 

Merced County's farming community appears deeply divided over a November ballot measure meant to save farmland from sprawl.

In a sign of the rift that could affect the fall election, two of the county's prominent farm organizations have taken divergent paths in relation to a countywide slow-growth initiative. Despite their current differences, both organizations initially helped fund efforts to put the Save Farmland initiative on November's ballot.

Thursday night, the Merced County Farm Bureau, which donated $5,000 to Save Farmland -- now Measure C -- overwhelmingly endorsed the initiative.

In contrast, in mid-August another farming organization, which had not only endorsed the initiative but also donated $1,000 to it, withdrew its support from the initiative. The California Women for Agriculture's Merced chapter, which has about 350 members in Merced County, voted to withdraw its endorsement of the measure because of divisions in the organization.

Depending on who's doing the talking, the conflict over support for the measure came about because of either a philosophical divide over property rights in the farm community or more prosaic reasons: personal gain.

Michelle Symes, CWA's president, said her organization withdrew its support for the initiative because there were unanswered questions about its effect on farmers and it was dividing the membership. Because of that, they voted to neither support nor oppose the measure, she said. "We endorsed this proposal before many of us had a chance to read the details and discuss the potential impacts on farming," she added.

Before the vote was taken, Farm Bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal said that while the farm bureau did help pay to get the initiative on the ballot, "we have not endorsed anything." But she then added that the $5,000 donation for collecting signatures for the initiative "does seem like an endorsement."

The Farm Bureau's Thursday night vote, which Carvajal could not be reached for comment on, could be seen as a direct affront of the Merced County Board of Supervisors efforts to water down Save Farmland with their own counter initiative.

Despite the loss of CWA's endorsement, Save Farmland spokesman Alan Schoff said recent attacks on the initiative haven't really changed many people's minds on the issue. "I don't think we've lost anybody," he said. He pointed to Thursday night's Farm Bureau endorsement as an example of the initiative's continuing popularity in the farming community.

Schoff said the CWA members who opposed the initiative aren't really fighting for property rights for Merced County's farmers, as they have argued. They really just want to be able to sell their property to developers, he said.

Schoff, who was asked to attend the Aug. 17 CWA meeting at which they voted to remove their endorsement, said the meeting was anything but civil. The gathering illustrated a deep division among CWA members, he said. The opponents of the initiative were unwilling to discuss the issue with other CWA members, he said. Schoff and Cindy Lashbrook, a CWA member and a county planning commissioner, said Symes told the body she would resign if the CWA supported Save Farmland.

Symes told the Sun-Star she only told CWA members she could not remain president if the body backed an initiative that local farmers are divided over.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors voted in late July to put an additional referendum on the ballot that would fundamentally weaken the "smart growth" ballot initiative by exempting 2,437 acres.

The original Save Farmland initiative would require a public vote when land of 10 or more acres changes from agricultural or open space to residential use. The measure is meant to keep Merced County mainly agricultural, slowing sprawl and directing urban growth into the county's cities.

If passed, Save Farmland would have far-reaching implications when it comes to development and planning in the county. It could stall or stop residential developments across the county, including a proposal for housing near UC Merced. It also would take much of the power to plan out of the hands of elected officials by handing such decisions to voters.

The Board of Supervisor's initiative, Measure D, could alter the antisprawl initiative and enable further development in rural areas. If passed, the county's ballot measure would exempt several areas from the Save Farmland initiative because, they argue, those areas already have gone through the planning measures needed for urban growth and shouldn't fall under the initiative's rules. The areas in question are still zoned for agriculture or open space.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.

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