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Napa Valley Feuds Over Land Use

Farm workers say agricultural law in California drives up housing costs

By Reese ErlichSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1994



RUTHERFORD, CALIF

FARM worker Frederico Carrillo is both a beneficiary and victim of one of the most innovative land-use laws in the United States.

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Twenty-six years ago Napa County, located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, passed a law protecting agricultural land against urban development. As a result, the grape-growing industry boomed and pickers such as Mr. Carrillo enjoy wages of $12 to $15 per hour during the harvest season.

But the law also helped shoot housing prices out of reach for many working people. Carrillo and other farm workers must pay monthly rents of $500 or more to live in austere apartments - when they are available.

Supporters of Napa Valley's agricultural-preserve law say it improved the environment and prevented the valley from becoming a shopping mall. John Crossland, vice president for farming operations with Beckstoffer Vineyards, notes that 60 years ago the San Jose area was a rich fruit basket of agricultural land. ``It's virtually paved over today,'' says Mr. Crossland disparagingly. ``That's what could have happened here.''

But critics say antidevelopment measures have gone too far, depriving local workers of construction jobs and affordable housing. Louis Franchimon, business manager for the Napa-Solano Counties Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIO, says rich vintners have monopolized the land.

``There's very little [affordable] housing being built in Napa,'' Mr. Franchimon says, ``very little building, period.''

The controversy began when the California Legislature passed the innovative California Land Conservation Act of 1965, known as the Williamson Act. Essentially, it provided tax reductions to land owners who kept their land for farming in areas designated as agricultural preserves. In 1968, Napa County created one of the first such preserves in the country.

``The Williamson Act was looked to as a model by other states,'' says Erik Vink, a field office director with the American Farmland Trust, a national organization dedicated to preserving agricultural land. ``Now every state has a law like California's.''

Back in 1968, the idea of setting aside wide areas of land for farming seemed heretical.

``Agriculture was always considered a holding action until someone came along to put in a subdivision or wanted to put in a shopping center,'' says Jim Hickey, who was regional-planning director for the Association of Bay Area Governments in 1968.

Under terms of the 1968 agricultural preserve, Napa County land owners needed county permission to convert agricultural land to other use. Developers and some local land owners sued, arguing that the preserve was an unconstitutional infringement on their property rights. They feared land values would decline.

But the California Supreme Court eventually upheld the law. The Napa experience inspired every other county in the state, except Los Angeles, to establish similar preserves, Hickey says.

Knowing that the land would stay in agricultural use for many years, vintners and grape growers expanded their holdings in the Napa Valley during the 1970s. The region grew from about 65 wineries in 1968 to some 200 today. The agricultural preserve now encompasses over 31,000 acres.

But not everyone shared the wealth. Building-trades union leader Franchimon says antigrowth measures have cut off jobs for construction workers and wiped out the chance of developing other industries.

The building trades unions favor ``balancing growth with environmental concerns,'' Franchimon says. But he says the wealthy winery owners have bought the best land and made it difficult to build even small industrial parks.

That lack of jobs, Franchimon maintains, forces many Napa residents to commute to San Francisco and other cities to work.

The agricultural preserve in practice has limited ``the building industry to the higher range housing,'' he says. ``There's very little chance of anyone moving into moderate-income housing.''

Out in the hot fields, farm workers agree. Unlike farm workers elsewhere who move with the crops, grape pickers in Napa tend to stay year-round.

Frederico Carrillo started work in the chilly morning, and he still wears a long sleeved, wool shirt and cap with ear flaps, despite the afternoon heat. He says he earns good wages during the harvest season, but ``we only work for five weeks. We can't afford to buy houses.''

Some supporters of the agricultural preserve concede that Napa County doesn't have enough low-cost housing. Larry Orman, executive director of the environmental group Green Belt Alliance, argues, however, that the agricultural preserve didn't cause the shortage.

``Nobody can build affordable housing in any metropolitan region anymore,'' Mr. Orman says. ``You have to do it through subsidy, or by requiring people to do it and then offsetting the cost.''

He notes that the agricultural preserve allows construction inside city limits and that ``Napa has very good affordable-housing policies.''

Orman and other supporters of Napa's land-use policies say the agricultural preserve has proven to be a boon to the area. They say it reduced urban sprawl, and was a major factor in providing steady jobs.

``The real value of Napa County,'' says Mr. Orman, remains its integration of an ``agricultural community with cities. That balanced lifestyle just doesn't exist in many places anymore.''