A Stanislaus County plan that says developers must preserve an equal amount of farmland when they build new homes is unconstitutional, a judge said in a recent ruling.
The opinion is not expected to have an immediate impact, because new home construction slowed to a crawl after the mortgage meltdown. But officials from the Building Industry Association of Central California, which filed the lawsuit in January 2008, said the outcome is more than a symbolic victory.
"We just wanted the county to do it right all along," said Steve Madison, executive vice president of the BIA.
In a ruling filed Tuesday, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge William A. Mayhew said the county's farmland conservation plan is unconstitutional because the government failed to show a "reasonable relationship" between its mitigation rules and the adverse impacts of new home construction.
The government said it only would allow residential development of 20 acres or more if builders preserved an equal amount of farmland. The rules were enacted by a 3-2 vote of the Board of Supervisors in December 2007, after two years of discussions between county officials and community advisers.
BIA critical of exemption
The building industry complained that it was not brought into the discussion until late in the game. The industry also was critical of a last-minute exemption for developers who convert agricultural land to commercial or industrial uses, saying home builders were unfairly penalized.
In crafting the new rules, the county relied on a civil code aimed at nonprofit groups, saying the county would act as a trust for farmland preserved under the plan.
The judge said that requirement conflicts with a state law that says the government may not require conservation easements when it approves development. Next, lawyers involved in the case must craft an order for the judge to sign. After that, the county has 60 days to appeal.
"We're disappointed with the court's analysis and conclusion in this case and we will be considering our options," said Assistant County Counsel Edward R. Burroughs.
Madison said builders want to work with the county to preserve farmland but think a sales tax dedicated to farmland preservation, something that is done in Sonoma County, would be more equitable than placing the burden on builders alone.
He said the county plan was flawed because builders were left out of the discussion. "It was driven by people involved in agriculture and they didn't involve any other stakeholders," Madison said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.