California's agricultural economy and culture deserve protection. That was the conclusion of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in a unanimous decision on Nov. 29. The Court upheld a Stanislaus County ordinance requiring developers to protect one acre of farmland for every acre they convert to large-scale residential use. The decision overturns a Superior Court ruling that found in favor of the Building Industry Association (BIA), which challenged the county's farmland mitigation program (FMP).

With developers pressing to convert farmland to residential subdivisions and other uses throughout agricultural California, this case is likely to have a significant impact throughout the state, particularly in cities and counties with significant swaths of agricultural land.

"The Court of Appeal recognized the county's right to protect farmland as part of its well-established authority to regulate land use," commented Matthew Zinn of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, who represented the County in the case. "This sweeping opinion provides strong support for local governments seeking to protect farmland and the agricultural economy and culture it supports. The ruling will give cities and counties throughout California the confidence they need to ensure that developers mitigate the impact of new development on farmland."

The BIA argued that there was no reasonable relationship between the county's requirement to protect farmland and the conversion of farmland to residential use, and the Superior Court agreed. The Court of Appeal clearly rejected that contention and rules that such land use decisions are well within the scope of local governments' authority. The FMP requires only that developers ensure that an acre of farmland be preserved for each acre developed for residential subdivisions, and the court found that to be a reasonable requirement.

"Once farmland is lost, it's gone forever," continued Zinn. "The Court's ruling recognizes that local governments can ask developers to contribute their fair share to the protection of farmland when they seek to convert farmland to residential development."

Several conservation and local government organizations filed amicus briefs in support of the County in this case, including the Sierra Club, Planning and Conservation League, the Greenbelt Alliance, the League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties, and the California Council of Land Trusts. The California Farm Bureau Federation also participated in the lawsuit alongside the County.

Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger specializes in government, land use, natural resource and environmental law. Since 1980, the firm has provided representation to public agencies and community groups throughout California. Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger is at the forefront of the major land use and environmental issues facing California today.