APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Stanislaus County. William A. Mayhew, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. 622705)
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Levy, Acting P.J.
CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION
In December 2007, appellants, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors (Board) and the County of Stanislaus (County), adopted an update to the agricultural element of the County's general plan. At issue in this appeal is one component of this update, the Farmland Mitigation Program (FMP).
The FMP is designed to aid in mitigating the loss of farmland resulting from residential development by requiring the permanent protection of farmland through agricultural conservation easements granted in perpetuity. The FMP implementation guidelines provide that farmland mitigation shall be satisfied by the acquisition of an agricultural conservation easement over an equivalent area of comparable farmland. It is the sole responsibility of the developer to obtain the required easement.
Respondent, Building Industry Association of Central California (BIA), challenged the facial validity of the FMP's requirement that a developer dedicate permanent easements as a condition of obtaining development approvals or permits from the County. Appellants, California Farm Bureau Federation and Stanislaus County Farm Bureau (Farm Bureau), intervened in support of the County and the Board.
The trial court ruled in BIA's favor finding that the FMP was invalid on several grounds. The court concluded that (1) the FMP conflicts with state law that prohibits a local governmental entity from conditioning the issuance of land use approvals on the granting of conservation easements (Civ. Code,*fn1 § 815.3); (2) the appellants failed to demonstrate a reasonable relationship between the mitigation requirement and any adverse public impacts attributable to new residential development; and (3) the FMP requirements are in excess of the County's police power.
Appellants argue the trial court erred in invalidating the FMP. Appellants dispute the applicability of section 815.3. Appellants first contend that the FMP conservation easements are not conservation easements within the meaning of section 815 et seq. Appellants alternatively assert that the section 815.3 prohibition is inapplicable because an applicant is not compelled to grant an easement but, rather, may satisfy the conservation easement option by arranging for the creation of an easement in the property of a willing third party. Appellants further note that even if section 815.3 does apply, the FMP permits the applicant to mitigate the farmland loss without a conservation easement. Appellants additionally contend that there exists an inherent reasonable relationship between the FMP's requirements and the loss of farmland to residential development. Finally appellants argue that the FMP is within the scope of the County's constitutional police power.
As discussed below, the trial court erroneously concluded that the FMP was facially invalid. Accordingly, the judgment will be reversed.
In 1992, the County adopted its first agricultural element. Recognizing both the importance of agriculture to the County's economy and the County's attractiveness to urban development, the County sought to promote and protect local agriculture by the adoption of policies aimed at strengthening the agricultural sector of the economy, preserving agricultural lands for agricultural uses, and protecting the natural resources that sustain agriculture in the County. Noting that "[g]ood agricultural land is a finite, irreplaceable resource," the County included a policy of requiring mitigation of the impacts of farmland conversion "[t]o the greatest extent feasible." However, the agricultural element did not include any specific mitigation measures.
In 2005, the County began the process of updating the agricultural element through an advisory board and an agricultural element update subcommittee. In 2007, the subcommittee presented the first draft of the updated agricultural element for approval. This draft reaffirmed the County's commitment to mitigating farmland conversion but went a step further by specifying that, "[b]ased on a 1:1 ratio, one acre of farmland shall be permanently protected for every one acre of farmland converted to non-agricultural use. The viable option for permanent protection is purchase of a conservation easement on farmland." The draft further provided that the County would be required to adopt guidelines for mitigating the loss of agricultural land.
The Board held a public hearing on this draft in April 2007, at which time BIA submitted comments criticizing the mitigation requirement. The Board did not approve the proposed update but, rather, directed the advisory board to address specific issues that arose during the meeting, including the development of farmland mitigation guidelines.
Before further hearings were held, the subcommittee's revised draft update was made available for public review. This draft included the following proposed mitigation policy:
"In order to mitigate the conversion of agricultural land resulting from a discretionary project requiring an amendment to non-agricultural land use designation, the County shall require the replacement of agricultural land at a 1:1 ratio with agricultural land of equal quality located in Stanislaus County."
Mitigation was to be applied consistent with "Farmland Mitigation Program Guidelines." The proposed FMP guidelines were also presented. Those guidelines provide that, for 20-acre or greater parcels, "farmland mitigation shall be satisfied by direct acquisition of a farmland conservation easement as allowed by these guidelines and the Land Trust's program. It shall be the development interest[']s sole responsibility to obtain the required easement." For parcels less than 20 acres in size, the Board may alternatively authorize payment of an in-lieu mitigation fee.
A hearing on the revised update was held before the planning commission on December 6, 2007. The planning commission considered written comments and oral testimony. BIA objected to the FMP on several grounds including the County's failure to identify legal authority for mandating dedication of permanent conservation easements as a condition of general plan administration. BIA noted that "while voluntary agricultural conservation easements are recognized and serve a valuable purpose in California, such easements typically arise out [of] 'freedom of contract' situations, unlike the current proposal to exact such easements." After the hearing, the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Board approve the update as revised.
On December 18, 2007, the Board held a noticed public hearing to consider the planning commission's recommendation. Following deliberations, the Board approved the update by a three-to-two vote with the limitation that the mitigation requirement only apply to conversions of farmland for residential use.
BIA sought judicial review of the validity of the FMP through a complaint and petition for writ of mandate. BIA did "not question the County's underlying assumption that preservation of a viable local agricultural economy may be a worthy subject for public policy interest," but did challenge the legal validity, rationality, and equity of the new FMP mandates.
Following a bench trial, the court ruled that the FMP was invalid. This decision rested on several legal conclusions. The court first held that, because the County required "mitigation" to be provided by a "conservation easement" as defined in section 815.2, the FMP was subject to the limitation contained in section 815.3, subdivision (b), that "No local governmental entity may condition the issuance of an entitlement for use on the applicant's granting of a conservation easement pursuant to this chapter." Finding that the FMP violated section 815.3, subdivision (b), the court concluded the FMP conflicted with controlling state law and was therefore invalid.
The court further held that the County and the intervening Farm Bureau failed to provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate a reasonable relationship between "the exactions required under the FMP and any adverse public impacts resulting from new applications to change" agricultural land use to residential use. The court additionally found the evidence failed to show that "the exactions mandated by the FMP would or could achieve its ostensible purpose" of mitigating farmland conversion. The court also pointed out that the FMP's requirement that the protected farmland have an "adequate water supply," without further definition, was vague and arbitrary.
Finally, the court concluded that the County failed to demonstrate that it had any particular source of legal authority for the FMP. Based on its finding that the FMP requirements were not reasonably related to the impact of farmland conversion, the court found that the FMP was beyond the scope of the County's police power.
"Land use regulation in California historically has been a function of local government under the grant of police power contained in article XI, section 7 of the California Constitution." (Big Creek Lumber Co. v. County of Santa Cruz (2006) 38 Cal.4th 1139, 1151, fn. omitted.) The power of a city or county to control its own land use decisions derives from this inherent police power, not from the delegation of authority by the state. Thus, local governments have been constitutionally ...