MERCED — A Merced County initiative meant to hinder the destruction of farmland and open space by residential development could be watered down come November.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday 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 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, the measure 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 the University of California at Merced. It also would take much of the power to plan out of the hands of elected officials by handing such decisions to voters.
Now, the Board of Supervisors has decided to put a measure before voters that could alter the anti-sprawl 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 should not fall under the initiative's rules.
The areas in question are still zoned for agriculture or open space.
The county argued that because those areas have gone through extensive planning and environmental review, Save Farmland shouldn't apply to them. The county also argued that the intent of the initiative needs clarification.
"The purpose of this referendum is not to change the initiative," said Bob Smith, director of special programs for the county. Smith said the county had to offer the measure altering Save Farmland to clear up confusing and conflicting parts of it.
Notably, the changes would exempt five planned or existing communities and their Specific Urban Development Plans, which county officials said have gone through all required stages of planning, except for rezoning. Those areas are Winton, Planada, the University Community, Delhi and Yosemite Lake Estates, a proposal backed by Mike Gallo of Joseph Farms.
Proponents of Save Farmland contend that the county's actions will fundamentally alter the intent of the initiative and confuse voters in the fall.
"The county is trying to exempt these SUDPs based on a false premise," said Alan Schoff, with Citizens for Quality Growth, the group that wrote Save Farmland. The initiative was written so any changes of zoning from agricultural to residential must go before the voters, he said. "The approval of those SUDPs is in direct conflict with the mission of the initiative." Schoff said.
Janet Young, UC Merced's associate chancellor, said the university backs the county's proposed changes to the initiative. She said the university has gone through 15 years of planning; a vote on whether it can proceed with its development plans would further delay that process. Much of the land that will be used to build the proposed University Community is on parcels still zoned as agriculture.