Supervisors should give farmers a “fair deal” on GP 2020

“You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't,” warns land and water baron Noah Cross (John Houston), when smooth cop-turned-private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) starts nosing around Cross's water diversion scheme. – Chinatown, 1974

by Gary Piro

he movie Chinatown was based on actual events that occurred in the very early 1900's when a former Mayor of Los Angeles used political influence to divert water rights from pristine Owens Valley to neighboring San Fernando Valley. As described in Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, the similarities with what is happening to county farmers on San Diego County's General Plan 2020 is uncanny.

    On Wednesday, June 11, the County Supervisors will make a decision on rezoning 880,000 acres of county lands which will represent the largest shift of land wealth since the Owens Valley debacle. Winston Elton (a prominent local land appraiser) estimates that these maps will give a $3 billion windfall to the upzoned while causing a staggering reduction in property values to rural farmers.

    Make no mistake about it, the ability to parcelize to smaller farms or obtain farm loans against their underlying property density is as important to rural farmers as the water rights of the farmers in Owens Valley. As Al Stehley (Farm Bureau representative on GP 2020's Interest Group Committee) puts it “to the farmer, his land is his 401(K).”

    The visual picture of the Owens River diversion to the San Fernando Valley at the turn of the century is completely analogous to the diversion of the rural farmer's land values flowing to the developers on more urbanized county lands. What differentiated our current program from the Owens Valley debacle was the promise to our farmers of a simultaneous Transferred Development Rights (TDR) program whereby upzoned landowners would buy the underlying development rights (i.e., previous property density) at a very low price.

    The beauty of a TDR program is that the value of potential units to the urban landowner is worth considerably more that than the value lost by rural farmers.This is because the urban developer already has services available and is committed to constructing on-site infrastructure. Every unit he receives is worth the price of a new buildable lot which can average $100,000 or much, much more. The rural owner, however, would need to construct off-site facilities and considerable infrastructure, thereby reducing the value of each unit to $25,000 or less in most cases.

    So this is the ultimate “win-win-win” situation. The urban developer gets a $100,000 lot for $25,000, and the rural farmer (who really doesn't want to develop anyway) can sell potential development units to keep farming in “perpetuity” and environmentalists get a “non-tax” source of funding for land conservation. The County even hired an expert, Rick Pruetz, to help design the program.

    So everybody is happy, right? Wrong!

    After two years of working on the maps, development interests who are being radically upzoned are fighting the payment for the units they are getting. Mimicking the players in the Owens Valley program (who became obscenely wealthy), they refuse to pay one red cent.

    Like the fictional Jake Gittes, the farmers “didn't know what they were dealing with.” The farmers (like myself) foolishly believed that the Interest Group goal was formed to come up with the fairest plan for everyone. They didn't understand some developer interests viewed it as a “free for all,” maneuvering to get the best possible deal for themselves. 

    In the arena of political influence, the Farm Bureau fighting developer interests (and I differentiate “developers” from the home builders who are the hardworking individuals who provide our needed housing) is like Pee Wee Herman fighting Mike Tyson. Whereas development interests are represented by paid lobbyists and consultants who have had countless meetings with staff and Supervisor's offices, Shehley volunteers his time and after each meeting deals with pressing issues like farm payrolls, foreign competition, escalating water rates and the Mexican Fruit Fly infestation in his own grove.

    Developer lobbying is working, too. They have amazingly convinced many that paying for windfall units is a “fee” and somehow increases the cost of homes they will build. In reality, these developers get windfall lots at 20% to 25% of market value. How does getting a $100,000 lot for $25,000.00 increase the price of the home built on that lot? Spinning this situation as a “fee” is done because they know that's the kind of inflammatory label that would get the “hair up” on the back of the necks of Supervisor's Horn and Roberts who fight for affordable housing.

    They say that those who don't study history are destined to relive it. When President Theodore Roosevelt approved the government funds for the Owens Valley water transfer, he stated it was “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” However history showed that in 1913, the first year that the aqueduct was opened, the Owens Valley water flow exceeded San Fernando Valley's needs by 400%, while the Owens Valley farmers went bankrupt, Owens Lake went completely dry and that region experienced an environmental disaster which may never fully recover. If the San Diego County special interests have their way, they will receive incredible riches at the expense of our bankrupted rural farmers.

    At one point in Chinatown, Jake Gittes says to Noah Cross, “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford? “ Hopefully on June 11, the Board will think to the future of our County and direct their staff to come back with a fair plan for all.

    Gary Piro is the owner of his own civil engineering and land planning business in San Marcos and is a former County Planning Commissioner and former representative to the GP 2020 Interest Group. He can be reached at PIROENGRCS.COM.