What is an agriculture district and why should you care?
Chris Flores, senior agricultural biologist/standards inspector and her boss, Charlene Corveth, El Dorado County Agriculture Commissioner, took the time to answer those questions and a few more recently.
Agriculture Districts are specially identified areas within the county where agriculture is the primary use of the land.
“The agriculture districts were formally designated by the county in 1996 in order to preserve and protect existing agricultural property and to promote future agricultural use of the property,” said Flores.”You can still do agriculture outside of an ag district, but in an ag district, agricultural uses are primary.”
El Dorado County has seven agricultural districts comprising about 49,000 acres.
The Camino/Fruitridge Agricultural District which includes Apple Hill members in the area is familiar to most, but others like the Pleasant Valley Agricultural District may not be. Other county agriculture districts include Oak Hill, Coloma, Garden Valley/Georgetown, Fairplay/Somerset and Gold Hill.
Being in an agriculture district doesn’t limit residents to agricultural uses of their property — it simply means the area is primarily used for agriculture.
Originally the criteria for an ag district was “choice” agricultural soils, a minimum parcel size of 20 acres, lands under cultivation for commercial crop production, land with low development densities, and with topographical and other features that made it suitable for agriculture.
“A focus group from the county created the districts. They used soil maps — the Department of Conservation’s designation of ‘choice’ soils,” said Flores. “This was before the Geographic Information System (GIS) was available, so they used topographic features and property lines to draw the ag district boundaries.”
Agricultural uses of the land can be orchards, vineyards and grazing operations.
A grant from PG&E allowed the county agriculture district to put up signs identifying the agriculture districts.
“We tried to keep them on the outskirts of the district to let people know when they are entering and we asked the growers to help us choose good locations for the signs,” said Corveth.
Not all the signs are in place yet, especially in the Garden Valley/Georgetown, Coloma and Fairplay districts, but Flores said, “Please look at the signs — don’t shoot them or take them down.”
In 2009, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors directed agriculture department staff to continue the process of identifying parcels for inclusion or deletion to agricultural districts and Flores started analyzing the suitability of different parcels.
“I took the earlier focus group data and used GIS to look at parcel size, elevation, slope, soil type, proximity to existing ag districts, water availability, current land use and topography,” said Flores. “Anything owned by the state or the federal government or under 20 acres wasn’t put in. Properties with zoned residential land use and for higher residential density weren’t put in, either.”
The criteria for soils was revisited.
“We included not only the type of ‘choice’ soil that would sustain orchards, but soil that could support timber, grazing lands and vineyards. Grapes don’t need good soil — they do better without it,” said Flores.
The original expansion Flores proposed was 30,000 acres, but it is now 17,000 acres. One hundred thirty seven acres were proposed for removal.
“Parcels on the outskirts of ag districts, because we didn’t want to create doughnut holes; ones with low or medium residential designation and smaller parcels were the ones we proposed to eliminate from the existing ag districts,” said Flores.
Proposed expansions were the largest in the Fairplay/Somerset area and in Garden Valley/Georgetown.
“We were also able to include areas that are Williamson Act Contracts like the Bacchi Ranch,” said Flores.
The California Land Conservation Act (Williamson Act) allows property owners to sign a 10 year contract with the county to voluntarily restrict the use of 100 plus acre parcels to agriculture and compatible open space use in order to receive a lower tax rate based on the size of the raw land instead of its potential market value.
Five hundred and eighty-seven parcel owners were notified of the proposed addition or omission of their parcel to ag districts.
Ten public hearings have already been held since 2010.Some property owners wanted in; some wanted out and some wanted to stay.
“Contested parcels who did not want to be included, 25 out of 580, met at two separate public hearings to share their reasons for not wanting to be part of an ag district,” said Flores.
Advantages to being within the agriculture district include additional commercial uses being allowed and compatible uses such as agricultural product processing are also allowed, depending on the zoning, according to Flores.
“Being in an agricultural district offers some buffering protections since the minimum parcel size is 20 acres,” said Flores.”That means a neighbor with a 60 acre parcel can’t subdivide it int0 any more than three 20 acres parcels.”
Another advantage for a resident in an agriculture district would be if a person in a residential zone wanted to apply for a rezoning to agriculture in order to put in a winery or vineyard.
“It would be much easier for them to get that rezoning if they are in an agricultural district,” said Flores.
Some things don’t change with the inclusion in an ag district. “Being in an agriculture district doesn’t change the property tax,” said Flores. “And all the uses that are allowed in a residential district are still allowed in an ag district.
“We looked for disadvantages to being in an agriculture district as part of our report. We couldn’t find any, other than not being able to subdivide into smaller than 20 acre parcels. That could be a negative depending on what you want to do with the property,” said Flores.