Lettuce Fields Preserved

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Land Conservancy purchases development rights to 510 acres
between creek and Pajaro River
Gilroy – Hundreds of acres of lettuce fields a few miles south of Gilroy will remain farmland forever, thanks to an environmental group brokering conservation deals along the Pajaro River.

The Silicon Valley Land Conservancy announced this week that it arranged a $2.1 million purchase of development rights for 510 acres of flat, rich soil between Carnadero Creek and the Pajaro River, east of U.S. Highway 101.

The ranch is owned by Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms, based in Salinas. The company sells hundreds of millions of dollars in bagged salads each year to restaurants such as McDonald’s and Burger King. Taylor did not return a call for comment.

Conservancy director Craige Edgerton said the deal with Taylor has been in the works for three years.

“The land conservancy’s main purpose is to protect open space, habitat for endangered species, and to preserve agricultural lands,” he said. “This meets our third goal.”

Taylor Ranch is the third contiguous parcel the agency has helped protect near the upper Pajaro River, which forms the border between Santa Clara and San Benito counties. To the west, between Carnadero Creek and U.S. Highway 101, lies another parcel of nearly equal size known as Carnadero Preserve; a smaller piece borders the preserve to the north, just south of Highway 25.

Together, the protected area now spans roughly 1,150 acres.

In addition to preserving agricultural land, the latest deal helps flood protection efforts along the Pajaro River watershed stretching to Monterey Bay, according to Mike Di Marco, spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Taylor Ranch lies at the junction of the Pajaro River and Carnadero and Llagas creeks, and stretches of asphalt and rooftops that are impervious to rain could throw the entire system out of balance, Di Marco said. The preservation of farmland guarantees that open swaths of soil can soak up rainwater, preventing flooding farther downstream along the Pajaro. For that reason, the agency helped finance the preservation of the neighboring Carnadero Preserve, and remains on the look-out for additional conservation opportunities in the area.

“We have an opportunity to save a watershed system that can still operate naturally, and to prevent flooding,” Di Marco said. “It’s an important area in terms of wildlife. We have Steelhead Trout that come up from Monterey Bay through the Pajaro River. We also have other wildlife that use part of this area to migrate from the Diablo Range to the Gavilan mountains and back.”

The nonprofit conservancy, formerly known as the Land Trust of Santa Clara County, has little money of its own and typically leverages funds from government agencies and private sources.

Funding for the Taylor Ranch deal came from the taxpayer-funded Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, which contributed $500,000, and the California Department of Conservation and U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, each of which contributed $820,000.

The Taylor land is the biggest single parcel the conservancy has brought under its stewardship. In addition to the Pajaro River land, the group oversees six smaller parcels between Morgan Hill and San Jose set aside for endangered species. Since it formed in 1997, the conservancy has helped protect 1,700 acres of land, most of it through the purchase of easements.

“By having the easement, it allows the farmer to remain in business and they get an infusion of cash,” said Edgerton, who also serves on the board of directors of the open space authority. “From the conservancy side, it takes less money to buy the easement than it does to buy the land outright. The easement generally runs between 20 to 40 percent of purchase price.”

The latest conservation deal comes as plans for large-scale development take shape in the surrounding area. An Arizona-based developer, DMB Associates, recently announced a 15-year plan to build a self-contained community of 6,800 homes south of the Pajaro River. The company also announced the purchase of O’Connell Ranch immediately to the south, forming an 11,500-acre land holding that stretches from Highway 25 to San Juan Bautista. The company has yet to disclose plans for its latest purchase.

Meanwhile, San Diego-based developer Wayne Pierce hopes to build homes on Sargent Ranch, 6,000-plus acres of rolling hills and streams west of Highway 101.

Carolyn Tognetti, a local farmland preservation advocate, was uncertain if Taylor Ranch was ever suitable for development since it lies in a floodplain. But she still welcomed the deal.

“It’s good because it’s going to preserve land around the Pajaro River. That’s one of the biggest issues,” she said. “The hillsides are important, too, and the ranchlands, but the flat land is where the most pressure for development is.”

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