An email sent out over the weekend from Greg House, a local citizen and organic farmer, triggered a fire storm of debate and criticism over a proposal by the city to decline an NRCS grant.
Moving forward with the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) grant “would permit the Yolo Land Trust to secure agricultural conservation easements on the First Bank of NW Arkansas Property.”
On the other hand, “declining the grant would retain opportunities to explore options to leverage the property for additional or alternative urban agriculture transition area acquisitions, and potential furtherance of local economic development strategies.”
Staff believes there were a number of inaccuracies in Mr. House’s communications, and have essentially pulled the item from the consent calendar and moved it to its own special meeting agenda.
The city acquired the 391-acre Mace Curve Property in November 2010 from the First State Bank of NW Arkansas for a purchase price of $3.8 million.
Two sources funded the purchase: Open Space Fund – Measure O ($1,325,000) and an internal loan from the Roadway Impact Fee account for $2,475,000.
The Yolo Land Trust, in partnership with the city, received authorization for a $1,125,000 NRCS grant on April 18, 2011 that would be used to fund approximately 50% of the easement costs to place a permanent conservation easement on the property.
The remainder of the costs comes from Measure O funding used to purchase the property.
The key to this proposal, however, is a proposed land swap.
Staff reports that a few months ago, a new Davis-based benefit corporation called Capitol Corridor Ventures “approached the City with an offer to essentially conduct a ‘swap’ of properties that would allow the City to gain a more robust conservation buffer along the northeastern edge of the City while acquiring a parcel that had a higher percentage (over 85%) of Prime Agricultural farmland.”
The city notes that the company claims it does not represent any developers.
The proposal would allow for Capitol Corridor Ventures to acquire the Mace Curve Property. They would reimburse Yolo Land Trust for costs incurred in this process and city costs for negotiating with Capitol Corridor Ventures.
Staff reports, “As proposed, included in the transaction would essentially be a swap of the proposed easement on 234 acre portion of the Mace Curve 391 Property for a conservation easement on the Shriner property, which is also approximately 234 acres. CCV holds an option on the Shriner’s Property.”
Staff continues, “Conservation easements are also proposed for the north east 157 acres of the Mace Curve 391 Property. The Measure O funds are proposed to pay for the easements described in this proposal.”
They further continue: “As proposed by CCV, at the conclusion of the transaction, the 234 acres of the Mace Curve 391 Property would not be subject to a conservation easement. CCV would have purchased the Mace Curve 391 Property and the City will have contributed the Measure O funds for the conservation easements described above.”
“In addition, the City and the Land Trust would be ‘whole’ at the conclusion of the addition of the Shriner’s Property into the transaction,” staff writes. “Any future, voter-approved development proposed by CCV in the Mace Curve area… is proposed to include a continuous, substantial and sustainable annual funding source for the City (in excess of traditional development fees).”
In summary, “This transaction would effectively swap approximately 234 acres on the Mace Curve 391 Property for approximately 234 acres on the Shriner’s Property. Capitol Corridor Ventures does not represent any developers and acquired the option to purchase the Shriner’s Property in an effort to assist the City with its goals of Fiscal Stability, Economic Development and Sustainability.”
Staff continues to recommend that the council decline the NRCS’s grant funding “to explore a proposed opportunity to gain additional acreage for conservation along the northeast border of the City.”
Council has a June 15 deadline in order to make the decision regarding the grant. Action by the council is required on June 11 (Tuesday) if it chooses to decline acceptance of the grant.
Staff argues that “because of their regulatory design, agricultural conservation easements place strict limitations on the use of the property with a key objective of soil conservation.”
“Pursuing an agricultural conservation easement on the Mace Curve 391 Property locks in agricultural uses but would also limit any significant use for research and development opportunities due to strict limitations on surface area used for structures and parking, including placement of greenhouses or research- related facilities,” staff writes, noting “The NRCS grant specifies that only two percent of the land area is the maximum typically permitted for greenhouses, structures, and parking.”
“Placing an agricultural conservation easement on the property at this time would narrow the scope of potential opportunities to utilize the Mace Curve 391 to meet multiple long-term City objectives, including larger and/or alternative urban agriculture transition areas that provide a better buffer adjacent to the City,” they argue.
Staff adds, “Furthermore, the Council’s adopted resolution recognizing the ‘Dispersed Innovation Strategy’ would be significantly hampered and choices would be removed from the community’s consideration. Therefore, land that could be in the City’s best interest for potential innovation park uses and related agricultural research facilities consistent with the City Council direction would be removed from any future consideration.”
“The Mace Curve area also presents location and infrastructure opportunities not found in other areas of the community,” staff argues. “Proximity to Interstate 80, the Mace Interchange, rail lines, a significant bicycle connector with Sacramento, the Second Street business park area, and existing drainage and utility facilities create opportunities to connect with the region and city core and university and to minimize greenhouse gas impacts.”
They argue: “Cost savings realized from proximity to these infrastructure resources could result in significant financial benefits, well in excess of what would be foregone with the NRCS grant.”
They would add, “Proceeding with the staff recommendation also provides an opportunity to explore cost sharing strategies that may reimburse incurred land acquisition costs and create a long term revenue stream for the city.”
Instead, they argue that the council should direct staff to leverage the Bank of NW Arkansas Land toward the objectives of fiscal sustainability, economic development and sustainability.
Staff writes, “Under this option the City would be exploring ways to utilize the Mace Curve 391 Property to gain a more significant implementation of the urban agricultural transition areas around the Mace Curve area and create a permanent buffer that is almost completely controlled by the City. This option would require the City to enter into public private partnerships to acquire land and easements necessary to implement the General Plan vision.”
The other option would be to go forward with the grant funding.
Staff writes, “If the Council chooses to continue with the NRCS grant, staff would be directed to immediately identify a purchaser for the Mace Curve 391 Property as farmland with a NRCS conservation easement co-held between the City and Yolo Land Trust. This approach is consistent with the NRCS Ranch Lands Protection Program grant to fund the acquisition of the agricultural conservation easement on the Mace Curve Property.”
Staff explores advantages and disadvantages to both.
The advantages of option 1 are that the land could be leveraged to acquire additional urban agricultural transitions. Utilizing this land for non-agricultural uses frees up land for council to adopt long-term economic development strategies.
They believe that the proximity to critical infrastructure, as well as cost sharing opportunities, would create a revenue advantage going forward.
The city lists some disadvantages to declining the grant proposal: “real estate acquisition or development concepts are always speculative”; “there are details that would need to be negotiated in the CCV proposal and exploration and vetting of concepts will be necessary”; and “the City would lose the NRCS grant funding.”
However, staff seems to miss the big one, which is an expressed desire by the community to protect agricultural land in general and not develop land east of the Mace Curve.
Likewise, the staff employs a very limited vision of advantages for accepting the NRCS grant, but does include the fact that “the land would be permanently preserved for agricultural use.”
On the other hand, they list a lengthy list of disadvantages to the alternative option of proceeding with the grant, including: “land use restrictions, such as limitations on the amount of greenhouse structures or other impervious surface area (no greater than 2% of the land area), limit future flexibility for uses other than strict agriculture…”
While the staff view may well be accurate, it does appear that their use of advantages and disadvantages reflects their bias for rejecting the option, rather than an objective assessment of the situation.
From the community’s perspective, there are advantages of going forward with this proposal, but only if one buys into the idea that this is the appropriate land for creating a business park. If one believes that this is land that should be protected, that would represent a big disadvantage.
As much as staff wants to argue this point, it basically comes down to a philosophical view of growth and economic development, and a consideration of the value of preservation of agricultural land.
As such, the scheme may not be as subject to a cost-benefit analysis, as city staff implies.
—David M. Greenwald reporting