Under Measure R requirements, developers are required to take twice the land used by their proposed project and lock up the land as agricultural mitigation. The 218-acre Mace Ranch Innovation Center project thus would be required under Measure R to preserve around 436 acres in ag mitigation, plus there is perhaps an additional 100 acres for Swainson’s hawk mitigation that would be required.
Under a traditional metric, however, that could be land far from the city of Davis and not contiguous. However, Dan Ramos, the project manager for the proposed development, told the Vanguard on Friday that the development team is looking into a different approach.
Right now the proposed development is surrounded to the north and east by the 391-acre Mace 391 property, which the city worked to put into a permanent agricultural easement. To the east of that property, along I-80 and moving into the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Preserve, is the 775-acre and city-owned Howatt Ranch property that, in the past, the city has looked at as a possible sports park site.
Mr. Ramos has been discussing the possibility of purchasing that property, using that as mitigation land, and turning it over to the non-profit Center for Land-Based Learning where they promote farmland practices that would help preserve the land as open space and farmland in perpetuity.
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson told the Vanguard that she is supportive of the concept. “It is completely consistent with what I have been talking about from day one, we need to be utilizing an opportunity to lock up our land in a conservation easement.”
Ms. Swanson has always been bothered by the city’s open space program that has allowed mitigation land to be scattered, far from city boundaries, rather than in land that has a real possibility to be developed.
“When I first voted for the open space, the idea it was going to be in Davis – right around Davis, not all over the county,” she pointed out.
Dan Ramos told the Vanguard that this is a way to move the mitigation right to areas next to the city as well as close to the property itself. Not only that but, by turning the land over the Center, he would avoid having to purchase land from a farmer and then allowing the farmer to continue to farm and harvest that land for profit.
Center for Land-Based Learning Director Mary Kimball told the Vanguard that they have been working with the development team for some time. The plan has evolved from one that was conceptual to one that now has a specific property attached to it.
Currently, the Center leases its land, which she said “has been an incredible opportunity, but it’s also quite limited.” She said there is only so much land that they can lease from Craig McNamara and his family, and they have run out of room. “This is an opportunity for a much longer term plan in terms of our organization.”
This location would allow the Center to be headquartered in Yolo County, where they are currently in Solano County. And it gives them the ability to own land and be able to build headquarters. It will move their vision forward in “ensuring that farmland is responsibility and sustainably managed.”
The process is long and complicated. Dan Ramos would have to purchase the property from the city – which provides a benefit of additional money for the city. He then has to put the conservation easement on the land, which in itself a process. He would then donate a portion of it, in fee and title, to the Center for Land-Based Learning.
None of this would happen until the voters approve the Measure R vote. They are required to put at least a 2 to 1 ratio into the conservation easement.
Ms. Kimball pointed out that, if the land is not permanently preserved in an easement, “that could change in one council meeting. I think it’s in the best interest of the city quite honestly to make sure that land (is preserved).”
She noted that “the concept of nexus” was important to this discussion, “the closest possible land to where the conversion takes place from a legal perspective… that’s the ideal situation.” She stated that “this land is the closest possible land to the conversion that does not yet have a conservation easement on it.”
She called it “an incredible opportunity to lock this land up.”
Still, there will be some who question the use of city land for mitigation.
From the city’s perspective, this will not cost the city any money. If the project and easement get approved, the dollars will actually go to the city. “The city will actually make money by putting a conservation easement on this parcel,” she said.
She added that “there is no request in our proposal for the city of Davis to be putting any money towards this of any kind.”
While the devil’s in the details, Councilmember Swanson sees this as a potential “win-win” for the community, the developer and the Center.
Some will undoubtedly question this decision. They will argue that this was land that was already owned by the city and therefore there was no real threat to develop it. Councilmember Swanson pushed back, noting that there is no current easement on the property, and “it only takes three to change anything if there’s not a conservation easement on it.”
She believes that the Mace Ranch Proposal overall is “an opportunity for us to really work with ag-related research and development, along with other innovative businesses that will be there. I think being able to have research lands and farmlands adjacent to the innovation is how it should be.”
“It really would make us an incredibly strong community,” she added.
There are those who have clamored for 3 to 1 ag mitigation. The Vanguard reported last month that the county has moved to 3 to 1 mitigation in some circumstances and some believe the city should do the same. With 775 acres, the Howatt Ranch could accommodate 3 to 1 ag mitigation while turning the land over to a non-profit that specializes in sustainable agriculture.
Mr. Ramos sent the Vanguard a proposal that highlights the fact that ownership gives Land-Based Learning the opportunity to:
1) Properly steward the land – utilizing sustainable farming practices demonstrated at the Farm on Putah Creek, that we teach via our many youth programs and to new farmers in the California Farm Academy (CFA) program. The current situation is that the property has been leased to multiple farmers using year-to-year leases, thereby not allowing for proper soil and land stewardship practices to be implemented
2) Habitat restoration – implementing the many conservation/habitat projects that we have piloted and implemented for years at the Farm on Putah Creek and throughout the state via SLEWS (hedgerows, vegetated buffers, riparian restoration, pollinator habitat, etc.)
3) Farmland conservation and beginning farmer access to land – showcasing the ability for private landowners to conserve farmland through conservation easements, and then make that land available for beginning farmers for access
4) Beginning Farmer Training and Incubator – The California Farm Academy manages 5 acres at the Farm on Putah Creek, 7.5 acres in West Sacramento, and 5 acres in Davis; we need additional acreage so that our incubator farmers can scale up to increase production if they desire
5) Connection to Bypass/Wetlands – ability to connect to City of Davis/Conaway Ranch wetland projects via education and additional restoration potential
6) Farmland conservation – owning land that is under agricultural easement, thereby showcasing the opportunities for such easements to properly steward and provide land access to beginning farmers at appropriate prices for the next generation. Many Land Trusts are looking to partner with beginning farmer training and incubator programs, as their missions are very much intertwined. So far, there are no examples/case studies of this kind of partnership in Yolo County (via Yolo Land Trust), and this could be the first – allowing all of us to learn and scale it in the region as appropriate
7) Locate Operations – build a new headquarters (farmhouse and main office) at a location that is accessible and visible in the region
8) Agricultural Leasing – leasing additional land to area farmers for larger-scale agriculture (lease payments would support the entire facility for long-term maintenance and operations)
Right now this is just a concept that Dan Ramos and his team continue to explore. Measure R requires 2 to 1 ag mitigation, and the only question is where and what form.
—David M. Greenwald reporting