Farm preservation policy drafted

A proposed new farmland preservation policy for Morgan Hill will require developers to pay for easements that protect a half-acre of agricultural property for every acre they pave over, according to city staff.

The draft agricultural mitigation policy was just released last week. It’s part of the ongoing environmental study for the city’s southeast quadrant, a 1,200-acre patchwork of farms, sports fields and large-lot homes that is roughly bound by U.S. 101, Maple Avenue, San Pedro Avenue and Carey Lane.

The city hopes to one day annex about 660 acres of the quadrant into the city limits, control growth with land use guidelines and preserve a greenbelt around the southeast side of Morgan Hill.

The agricultural mitigation policy will be reviewed informally by city staff, property owners and interested residents over the next several weeks, Morgan Hill senior planner Rebecca Tolentino said. Any changes, based on public feedback, will be made to the draft before it becomes part of the overall environmental study for the city’s plans to annex southeast quadrant properties and regulate their use with zoning.

The purpose of the agricultural mitigation policy is “to identify areas within the southeast quadrant we’re trying to preserve for agricultural purposes, focus on mitigation measures for their loss, and to preserve agricultural land within our boundaries.”

The primary tool cited to preserve agricultural land in Morgan Hill’s sphere of influence in the draft policy is the “agricultural conservation easement,” Tolentino said. It would require any developer who builds on agricultural land within the city to contribute to the permanent preservation of farmland elsewhere in the city – preferably in the southeast quadrant.

“The easement allows people to continue farming their land, and it’s our way of continuing agriculture in our area,” Tolentino said.

One resident of the southeast quadrant is disappointed that the draft policy only requires developers to preserve a half-acre of agricultural land for each full acre they pave over. Julie Hutcheson, a co-founder of the Thrive! Morgan Hill advocacy group, said on her first glance of the policy she noticed some “problematic areas,” including the lack of certain important details and information.

“It seems to be more beneficial to the development community than to the community as a whole,” Hutcheson said.

Plus, the policy does not seem to clarify how the values for those properties that would be eligible for preservation would be assessed, Hutcheson said. That’s a key detail as it could ultimately affect the total acreage of agricultural land to be preserved.

Tolentino said the draft “recognizes that land values are considerably higher closer to the urban core than in the outlying boundaries.”

When agricultural easements cannot be acquired within the city’s sphere of influence, builders will be required to mitigate a full acre per acre of farmland they disturb, Tolentino said.

The policy regulates the offset of agricultural land throughout the city’s sphere of influence, not just in the southeast quadrant, Tolentino noted.

The southeast quadrant properties currently consist significantly of prime farmland, and single-family homes on larger parcels. The city’s Outdoor Sports Center and Aquatics Center, as well as privately owned hotels and other businesses on Condit Road are considered part of the SEQ.

The city would prefer to impose its own zoning guidelines, including a new classification known as sports-recreation-leisure, rather than allow the county’s more lax regulations guide land use in the area.

The San Jose Diocese has proposed building a Catholic high school in the southeast quadrant, and the Chiala family plans to build a planned residential development when the overall environmental study is completed.

The proposed agricultural policy will be considered as part of the overall environmental study.

City staff have not set the dates or locations for public hearings, which will follow the informal comment period, Tolentino said.

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