Farm debate boils over in council chambers
The latest public hearing on the Grant Road farm development brought a sometimes-unruly crowd to City Council chambers Tuesday, with more people overflowing into the lobby to watch the proceedings on TV.
Council members ultimately decided to postpone deliberation on the issue until June 5, turning the meeting into a "listen and learn" study session.
While most people spoke in favor of the Mountain View Farmlands Group's proposal to preserve five acres of the farm, a large number of neighbors opposed it, and expressed their views by booing and heckling several times throughout the meeting.
City staff is seeking guidance from the council on how to proceed with annexation from the county of the 15-acre farm at the corner of Grant Road and Levin Avenue. There are two options: It can either be annexed with a residential zoning or with a split agricultural and residential zoning to accommodate a five-acre farm. The second option would require more time to study.
"Any further delays on the annexation is placing an economic burden on two senior citizens," said Betty Moore, one of the two sisters who inherited the farm in 2004. The sisters hope to sell the land, valued at over $50 million, to developer SummerHill Homes.
Preliminary sketches of the homes were presented by SummerHill, as well as options for the layout of the subdivision, which could include a one-acre buffer of orchard trees along Grant Road south of Covington Road.
The sisters' lawyer, Lex Watson, said the sisters were losing $2,000 to $4,000 every day the land isn't sold to SummerHill Homes, due to tax liens accrued when they inherited the land.
"The state of California wants to be paid," Watson said. "They've recorded liens. Every day, interest builds."
He repeated his assertion that the land would never be used for farming again, regardless of zoning, and that the city was being encouraged to participate in the "taking" of an $18 million piece of property.
Several neighbors agreed with that assessment.
"It is someone else's property, and we do have to take that into consideration," one resident said.
Many immediate neighbors said they opposed the plan because of parking, traffic and pedestrian concerns. The farm, which closed for good earlier this year, drew crowds for the pumpkin patch in November and the Christmas tree sale in December.
SummerHill has yet to submit formal plans to the city, though the Farmlands Group's proposal uses two cul-de-sacs to allow more lots. Two neighbors criticized that plan because the existing cul-de-sacs adjacent to the property would be walled off instead of pushing through as originally intended when the surrounding neighborhood was built. The five-acre farm, as proposed by the Farmlands Group, is split in half by Covington Road, which will likely extend across Grant Road into the development.
The public comment period took just over an hour, with 17 people in favor of the five-acre farm proposal and nine against it. The opponents seemed to represent an older, more conservative crowd who lived in the neighborhood. Mayor Laura Macias repeatedly had to remind hecklers to be respectful while others were speaking.
Those in favor of preserving a small farm included John Dickman, Google's food services manager, who said it's the company's priority to buy food grown nearby.
Farm supporters said even a small farm would be a much-needed antidote to modern-day encroachment. Local children, they said, would benefit from its open space and connection with nature.
"We're only going to be growing more dense as time goes on. I would appreciate having a small farm," said Deborah Clarke.
Vicki Moore, a founding member of the Farmlands Group, noted the permanence of the decision council members must make. "Farmland paved over is lost forever," she said.
The group announced that it had recently conducted a survey of 120 homes surrounding the farm, and determined that neighbors favor keeping a small farm by a ratio of 5-1. They also said that, according to their survey, 65 percent of the neighbors disagree that the developer "should be able to build whatever they want."
SummerHill representatives criticized the economic feasibility study commissioned by the Farmlands Group and done by Bay Area Economics founder Janet Smith-Heimer, an advocate for sustainable agriculture who spoke during the meeting. BAE has done 1,300 economic studies for Bay Area cities, but mistakes in its layout of the lots in the subdivision would cost $10.5 million and result in fewer homes, said Katja Kamengar of SummerHill Homes. BAE stood by its plan.
Council member Nick Galiotto asked Smith-Heimer whether, if those criticisms were true, the proposal was still a win-win for the landowners and the Farmlands Group.
"Yes," she said, even with a smaller profit.
Both SummerHill and the sisters said they could not make use of an $8 million tax deduction for donating five acres of farmland, as proposed by the Farmlands Group. The donation, they said, would have to be made out of "disinterested generosity," which means the city cannot require that either party make the donation as a condition of its approval of the development.
City attorney Michael Martello said that although the council could zone the five acres for agriculture, that wouldn't mean the landowners would have to have a farm there.
Members of Full Circle Farm, a nonprofit that has committed to running the farm, talked about why local farms are more important now then ever. With concerns over global warming at an all-time high, they said, the long distances required to transport food is only adding to the problem.
They said the country imports more food than it exports as farms are pushed farther away from where people live, while homes spring up on local farmland — some of the best farmland in the world. They said their goal was to instill the passion of farming into a generation that won't have much opportunity to see how farms work.
"We are losing our farms. It's important to raise a generation that gets the passion of it," said Brian Gardener of Full Circle Farms.
Former Council member Mike Kasperzak encouraged the council to study the farm alternative, because otherwise they would not know where the truth lies regarding the city's ability to preserve some of the farm.
"Get staff involved in this," he said to applause.
Farmlands Group members believe the vote for studying their proposal — now slated for June 5 — is still up in the air. They speculate that three council members are open to studying the proposal, two are opposed, and two are undecided.
E-mail Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com