Deals in works to protect open space

As many as 680 acres of prime agricultural land and riverside
habitat near the northwest section of San Benito County could be
targeted for protection and enhancement through two potential
multi-million-dollar deals.
As many as 680 acres of prime agricultural land and riverside habitat near the northwest section of San Benito County could be targeted for protection and enhancement through two potential multi-million-dollar deals.

Two public agencies and two nonprofit conservation organizations are actively cooperating in hopes of purchasing roughly 480 acres in the southernmost area of Santa Clara County near the junction of the Pajaro River and Uvas/Carnadero creek that borders San Benito County.

Meanwhile, one of the organizations is also looking to secure an agricultural easement on a roughly 200-acre tract in the same area through $1.2 million federal and state funding.

Although specifics are scarce on the latter proposal, the 480-acre transaction could involve at least $2.25 million dollars in public funds and would be designed to help preserve the area’s farming heritage, open space and wildlife habitat, while also restoring habitat and helping to mitigate the effects of countywide stream maintenance.

That potential deal could involve a combination of four agencies with similar overall interests but distinct, individual niches and goals within that conservation framework. The transaction – which is still in negotiations and not final – could involve the Land Trust of Santa Clara County, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the county’s Open Space Authority and the Nature Conservancy.

“This property lends itself ideally to achieving the dual objective of saving good farmland and retiring land better suited for freshwater wetlands restoration and riparian restoration,” said Nancy Richardson, the Land Trust’s executive director.

The Land Trust is reportedly the lead agency on the acquisition and could orchestrate the contract with the owner to purchase the acreage, which lies on the east side of U.S. 101 just north of its intersection with the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

Richardson declined to release a potential overall purchase price, citing ongoing negotiations. It was unclear at press time how much funding the Nature Conservancy, Open Space Authority or Land Trust would contribute.

The water district would spend a proposed $2.25 million and gain ownership of about 172 acres of environmentally sensitive land mainly along Uvas/Carnadero creek and a small area of the Pajaro River, according to a district memo.

The district may also spend up to $350,000 for an additional 22 to 26 acres of land along Tick Creek, depending on whether district executives determine it has sufficient natural resource value.

The district would accept title and management responsibility for the land, which mainly involves environmentally sensitive riparian and wetland areas. Officials estimate the agency would potentially spend another $560,000 to restore the area to a certain level of habitat value.

The water district would use the land to meet environmental mitigation requirements for changes to various county streambeds – such as sediment removal and vegetation removal – anticipated under its stream maintenance program. The mitigation was planned to be mostly accomplished by donating funds to park and open-space agencies and land trusts, according to the staff report.

Meanwhile, the Land Trust would hope to secure an agricultural easement on the remainder of the land and then sell it to a farmer who could continue to tend the property, Richardson said.

Agricultural easements are generally voluntary arrangements that retire the development ability of the land in exchange for tax benefits or monetary compensation. Landowners usually retain the rights to farm or perform other uses that aren’t covered by the deed restrictions.

Advocates say easement programs generally benefit both property owners and the general public. Property owners lower their tax liability and increase operating capital. Meanwhile, the overall community benefits by improving its ability to direct future growth, contain urban sprawl, maintain viable locally-operated farms and protect ag land and open space.

Agricultural lands in the area have been targeted for easement programs for several reasons, including their large parcel sizes, relative lack of encroaching urban development that could conflict with farming operations, location in a flood plain and proximity to transportation and water, Richardson said. The area has historically been designated as an agricultural preserve area on county General Plan maps, she said.

The current tenant has reportedly offered to continue farming and grazing on portions of land to be dedicated to the district and is also willing to consider use of organic farming techniques to minimize impacts on natural resources, according to the water district staff report.

The Land Trust is a nonprofit, community-based organization that uses membership funding and public and private grants to work with willing landowners and protect the county’s remaining agricultural, open lands and natural resources.

While the Land Trust’s niche emphasizes preserving the area’s farming operations and heritage, the Nature Conservancy is reportedly interested in preserving the open space and streams in the area to provide corridors for wildlife to move between the mountain ranges.

The open space authority generally aims to preserve open space, habitat and provide recreational opportunities such as trails.

The water district would potentially enhance the riparian corridor and create more freshwater wetlands, Richardson said. The wetlands would help catch sediment that could otherwise end up in the Pajaro River, which flows to Monterey Bay, she said.

“We all have a slightly different focus, but in the end the focus and the partnership helps protect all of the values instead of just solving for one or two,” Richardson said of the potential partnership.

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