Protecting prime land

The Northern California Regional Land Trust adds farmland easements to its list of protected lands

Tod Kimmelshue is currently the president of the Northern California Regional Land Trust’s board of directors.

Tod Kimmelshue is currently the president of the Northern California Regional Land Trust’s board of directors.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

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The Greenline is the long-standing invisible line in southwest Chico demarcating fertile agricultural land from land earmarked for future growth. Created by the Butte County Board of Supervisors, however, it’s a political line as well.

In order to ensure its future, then, Northern California Regional Land Trust has made a commitment to “preserve prime farmland in and around ‘spheres of influence’ in Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties,” Tod Kimmelshue offered recently, “but mostly, Butte and Tehama counties are where we are trying to position ourselves.”

Kimmelshue, the president of the board of directors of the Northern California Regional Land Trust (NCRLT), was speaking of the nonprofit organization’s recent moves to preserve prime agricultural land from future subdivision and urbanized development along southwest Chico’s Greenline, as well as in other sensitive “spheres of influence”—potential growth areas that are also prime farmland—such as certain rural areas around Red Bluff.

The NCRLT, founded in 1990, has negotiated easements of various kinds—preserving oak woodlands or riparian areas, for instance—on a total of 20 properties in Butte and Tehama counties, but only two so far are specifically focused on preserving prime ag land: In August, the NCRLT added the 520-acre Home Place Farm outside of Red Bluff—which is owned by the Ohm family and farmed by four generations of Ohms—to the 146-acre ag easement it acquired along Chico’s Comanche Creek in June. The Comanche Creek property—along Chico’s Greenline—is owned by longtime local nut farmer George Nicolaus and his wife, Connie.

“Those are really the first two [agricultural easements for which] we have acquired the development rights from the farmer,” Kimmelshue said, explaining that an ag-easement agreement functions as a “deed restriction”: “If you would run a title search, it would say this property can only be used for agricultural purposes—in perpetuity, forever.”

The Greenline, established 30 years ago, has “held even through development pressures,” Kimmelshue said. “But the biggest concern is that it is still a political line established by the Board of Supervisors.”

One of the major reasons the Greenline was established to begin with, Kimmelshue observed, was to “stop development west of Chico and force development into the foothills to the east of Chico, where the land is not suitable for growing crops.”

He pointed out that former Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan famously and tirelessly championed the Greenline, “but things can change with the political currents and with the [current] Board of Supervisors. In order to strengthen the Greenline, it’s the goal of the Regional Land Trust to purchase development rights from farmers near the Greenline. It’s a firm deterrent to development on prime farmland.”

Selling development rights to the NCRLT is a win-win situation. Besides assuring that no parcelization or development will ever take place on a property with an agricultural easement in place, the easement agreement also offers the landowner/farmer a way to make money by not selling to developers.

“Farmers along or near a sphere of influence realize they have a valuable piece of property,” said Kimmelshue. “They realize that someday they could sell it to a developer, but given the current state of the economy, that may be years down the road. So now the real way they can make money is to sell the development rights” to the NCRLT.

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Plus, farmers like Nicolaus and the Ohms are concerned that their bucolic properties remain undeveloped long after they are gone. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. In Nicolaus’ case, he is using the money earned by selling his land’s development rights to the NCRLT to plant a new orchard.

The NCRLT funds its easement acquisitions with the help of such governmental agencies as the California Department of Conservation’s California Farmland Conservancy Program and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.

“There’s a lot of money available for protecting prime farmland,” Kimmelshue noted. “We are notifying owners of properties in and around the Greenline that we have this program, but it’s a purely volunteer program—there’s no pressure whatsoever.

“We value farmland and we value the protection of farmland because once you lose an acre of farmland to development, it’s probably never going to come back.”

Land trusts “are very, very popular on the East Coast—Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C.”—as ways to keep urban sprawl from engulfing every last bit of rural land, Kimmelshue pointed out enthusiastically. He also praised Marin County’s Marin Agricultural Land Trust as a “very vital land trust.”

“We’re moving more into the area of agricultural protection,” said Kimmelshue of the NCRLT. “That’s what this nation wants—to protect family farms; Obama is very supportive. … It’s important that agriculture continues to succeed and flourish in this area; it’s important that we protect it as an economic driver in this area.

“And also we believe—and this may sound corny—it also enhances the quality of life in this area. People want to live in a rural community where they can experience something other than the city.

“It’s the way of the future,” Kimmelshue said. “It’s a way for farmers to get some money out of the land without selling to developers, and at the same time continue to use the land as an income source.”