County struggles with preserving rural lands

Santa Clara County is considering options for rezoning ordinances in unincorporated agricultural lands in an attempt to better preserve open space.

Manira Sandhir, a principal planner for the county, said the conversation began in February when the county realized that farm owners, wineries and stables had concerns over the current zoning in unincorporated areas.

“Ranchettes,” as they’re often referred to, are large homes built on acres of unincorporated land zoned for agricultural use. The ranchettes are allowed to exist under the current zoning ordinances in the county, but that could change if the ordinances are updated.

Sandhir said the ranchettes are one of the concerns that prompted the community information session as well as the recent county agricultural preservation plan. According to the plan, “In the past 30 years alone, Santa Clara County has lost 21,171 acres of its farmland and rangeland to development, and an additional 28,391 acres of farmland and rangeland in the county are at risk of conversion going forward, not only diminishing our local food source but also resulting in a loss of the iconic rural character of Santa Clara Valley and resulting in losses of important jobs and farms central to our agricultural economy.”

The community meeting held in Morgan Hill on April 11 discussed the main problems with unincorporated county land, including incompatible uses and code enforcement. Sandhir said the community input they have received has expressed that the “size, scale and intensity of development should be limited in rural areas to preserve the rural character and lifestyle.”

Residents have also expressed a need for increased code enforcement and  faster, cheaper, easier permitting processes “to ensure land use standards are met. …If a particular land use is allowed in the rural districts, it should not be so difficult to get through the planning process.”

Sandhir said building ranchettes on agriculturally zoned land takes away not only from potential agricultural uses for that land. “It also affects the agriculture on neighboring properties,” she said.

A zoning ordinance that would only allow 5 or 10 percent of other uses on the acreage is an option Sandhir said the county was considering. She said the county is looking at similar ordinances in surrounding neighborhoods to use as models.

More community presentations are likely to happen this summer after county planners have put together recommendations. A possible ordinance or ordinances will then go in front of the planning commission and supervisors, Sandhir said, sometime in late 2019 or early 2020.

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