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Keeping some of Marin rural.

Keeping some of Marin rural

The rolling dairylands of west Marin County virtually define the word pastoral. They're productive, too--by some estimates, feeding cattle three times as efficiently as average California range.

Still, these hills were once slated for house and highways, not dairy herds. That's not surprising: agricultural lands are disappearing across the West, and nowhere faster in California. Some estimates hold that as much as 50,000 acres may be urbanized each year.

Some observers view these changes without alarm. They note that American agriculture's main problem is overproduction, not vanishing farmland. In the face of urban encroachment, they argue, farmers can sell their land at a good profit and transfer their operations elsewhere if they want to keep farming, or gain a comfortable nest egg if they don't.

Others disagree. They worry that unplanned sprawl paves over our best farmland and wipes out important reserves of nearby open space. (About half the open land in the Bay Area, for example, is devoted to crops or grazing.) Keeping land in agriculture, they believe, is cost-effective: farms generally demand less in municipal services than do the developments that replace them, and farming can be a profitable enterprise if land values aren't distorted by speculation.

Back in 1973, Marin County debated these questions and opted to keep its western half rural. Fifteen years later, rural it remains.

How has agriculture been maintained here? First, through strict zoning. Nearly 126,000 acres were designated agricultural; they can't be subdivided into parcels of less than 60 acres. The zoning, which has withstood court challenges, cooled speculation and assured landowners that the county's pro-agriculture policy was a long-term commitment.

A second tactic dates from 1980: it's the nonprofit Marin Agricultural Land Trust, or MALT, which purchases development rights. In return for keeping the land in agriculture, the rancher or dairyman can get capital--helpful when it comes time to buy new equipment or more land. Land prices are kept lower, too. That makes it easier for established ranchers to expand holdings and for younger ranchers to buy in. To date, MALT has completed 12 projects on 12,000 acres of land.

Probably the key reason agriculture has survived in Marin, however, is the spirit of cooperation naurtured among city dwellers, county officials, and--most importantly --the farmers and ranchers themselves. Initially many distrusted both the county and MALT. Now many are ardent supporters. George Grossi, a Novato rancher and past president of the Marin County Farm Bureau, says, "In this instance, a land trust has worked real well. It's another tool in case ranchers need it." Or, as MALT quotes another local rancher: "They aren't making any more land. We better preserve it."

Today, Marin dairies supply a quarter of the Bay Area's milk. Agriculture continues as Marin's single largest land use. MALT hopes to expand with funds from the Wildlife, Coastal, and Park Land Initiative on California's June ballot.

And Marin County is serving as an example to other regions. San Bernardino County's Chino Valley is another dairy region under pressure. Now a Chino Valley agriculture preserve and a land trust have been planned. Both would receive funds if the June initiative passes.

Photo: Will Lafranchi's father began dairying in Nicasio in 1919. Some Lafranchi land is protected by MALT
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sunset's 90th Anniversary Special Report; Marin County's agricultural land
Date:May 1, 1988
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