Court of Appeal Rejects Challenge to County Program Requiring Residential Developers to Acquire Agricultural Conservation Easement over Comparable Farmland

January 6, 2011 | Bulletin No. 959776.1

In Building Industry Association of Central California v. County of Stanislaus, (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 5 Dist., November 29, 2010), a court of appeal considered the validity of a county’s program that requires residential developers to acquire agricultural conservation easements over an equivalent area of comparable farmland as a condition of development. The court found the county’s program is valid as a reasonable method of conserving farmland, and did not run afoul of a statutory prohibition on conditioning land use approval on the grant of a conservation easement.

Facts

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors ("Board") and the County of Stanislaus ("County") first adopted an agricultural element of the County's general plan in 1992. County recognized both its attractiveness for residential development and the importance of agriculture to its economy. In 2007, the Board and County adopted an update to the plan which included a Farmland Mitigation Program ("FMP"), which is designed to help mitigate the loss of farmland to residential development.

The FMP provides for three farmland mitigation techniques. If the total amount of land area to be converted for residential use is less than 20 acres, "farmland mitigation shall be satisfied by direct acquisition of an agricultural conservation easement or purchase of banked mitigation credits." However, the "Board may authorize payment of an in-lieu mitigation fee for a less than 20-acre land area when the development interest can show that it made a diligent, but unsuccessful, effort to obtain an agricultural conservation easement or banked mitigation credits." If the land area to be converted for residential use is 20 acres or more, "mitigation 'shall be satisfied' by the direct acquisition of a farmland conservation easement." The developer is solely responsible in obtaining the easement. Finally, "alternative mitigation methods may be authorized by the Board provided the land will remain in agricultural use."

The Building Industry Association of Central California ("BIA") brought a lawsuit to challenge the facial validity of the FMP's requirement that a developer must dedicate permanent conservation easements before it can obtain development approval or permits from County. The trial court found in favor of the BIA and held that the FMP is invalid.

Decision

The court of appeal reversed the judgment of the trial court and rejected BIA’s facial challenge to the FMP. The court found that “on its face, the FMP is reasonably related to the County’s legitimate goal of conserving farmland to protect the County’s agricultural economy.” The court further found that the FMP was not prohibited under state law.

The Legislature enacted legislation, which can be found at Civil Code section 815 et seq., that addresses conservation easements “to further the public policy of ‘encouraging the voluntary conveyance of conservation easements to qualified nonprofit organizations.’” A conservation easement is defined as “any written limitation in the form of an easement, restriction, covenant, or condition, executed by or on behalf of the landowner that is binding on successive owners.” Civil Code section 815.1 provides that the purpose of a conservation easement “is to retain land predominantly in its natural, scenic, historical, agricultural, forested, or open-space condition.” A conservation easement “is a voluntarily created interest in real property that is freely transferable in whole or in part and is perpetual in duration” that “is not personal in nature, but rather constitutes an interest in real property.”

Civil Code section 815.3, subdivision (b) provides, “No local government entity may condition the issuance of an entitlement for use on the applicant’s granting of a conservation easement pursuant to this chapter.” County asserted that section 815.3 does not apply to the FMP “because an applicant is not compelled to grant an easement but, rather, may satisfy the conservation easement option by arranging for the creation of an easement in the property of a willing third party.” County also argued that, even if section 815.3 does apply to the FMP, “the FMP permits the applicant to mitigate the farmland loss without a conservation easement.”

The court found the FMP easements are conservation easements within the meaning of Civil Code section 815 et seq. and, therefore, are subject to section 815.3’s prohibition of conditioning land use approval on the grant of a conservation easement. The court, however, agreed with the County that the FMP guidelines do not conflict with section 815.3, subdivision (b). Section 815.3, finding that subdivision (b) “specifically limits the conservation easement prohibition to the applicant’s granting of a conservation easement.” The court found that the Legislature could have prohibited “a governmental entity from conditioning the issuance of an entitlement to use on the granting of a conservation easement, but did not.” The purpose of the statutes is to encourage landowners to voluntarily convey conservation easements. Section 815.3, subdivision (b), is designed to prevent “a government entity from requiring an involuntary conveyance of a conservation easement and thus, protects the landowner from an unreasonable taking of property rights.” A developer is required under the FMP “to arrange for the granting of a conservation easement in order to obtain a development approval.” However, “no particular landowner is required to grant the conservation easement.” Pursuant to the terms of the FMP, “the actual grant of the conservation easement will always be voluntary” and will not run afoul of section 815.3; however, it is the affected developer’s responsibility to facilitate the granting of the easement.


Questions

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