County Moves Ag Status Protection At Ontario/Chino Border To Prado

Almost thirty years after the effort to break up the Chino Agricultural Preserve began in earnest, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors this week made a stab at preserving a vestige of it, at least for the time being, by dedicating more than 270 county-owned acres near Prado Dam as agriculturally zoned open space.
Nevertheless, the designation of the 270 acres as land to be preserved for potential agricultural uses is being carried out to allow just under 105 acres of land in the former preserve currently zoned for agricultural use to be residentially developed. Eventually, the 270 acres of land will be utilized by the Orange County Flood Control District to enlarge the spillway at the dam.
The once-vaunted Chino Agricultural Preserve was formerly the most intensive milk-producing area in the world. Within its 17,000 acre confines were just under 400 dairies and 400,000 cows. With $800 million in annual dairy production in 1976, the relatively compact Chino Valley region alone was within the entire state of California a close third in milk output behind the much more expansive Tulare and Merced counties.
In the late 1950s, the Chino Valley had become a haven to dairy farmers, many of them of Dutch or Portuguese descent, who were displaced by the urbanization of southeast Los Angeles County. The preserve was formed in 1968 under the auspices of California’s Williamson Act — a 1965 law that was intended to preserve California farmland and to serve as a hedge against urban sprawl. The law granted substantial tax breaks to property owners agreeing to restrict their land to agricultural uses for at least 10 years. By 1970, the Chino Valley was the source for most of Southern California’s milk as well as a major supplier of cheese for a much larger geographical area.
By the mid-1980s, growing numbers of dairy farmers in the preserve wanted out, as the local industry was itself being subjected to the same pressures that had been brought to bear on dairyman who had been forced to pull up the stakes of their Los Angeles County operations two decades before. Land speculators and developers eyeing the property and envisioning it as residential subdivisions supported politicians at the municipal and county levels intent on adhering to a dairy-busting agenda that in time spelled the end of the preserve as a lasting entity.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the county’s land use professionals were seeking to examine the desirability of maintaining the preserve’s dairies as a hedge against the burgeoning urbanization and to determine if the scaled-down dairy industry had a reasonable prospect of sustaining itself in the changing environment. At the same time, the county’s elected leadership was heavily influenced by developmental interests, the major providers of political contributions. With a few exceptions, the supervisors leaned in favor of breaking up the preserve.
In 1986, the county took the first step toward deconstructing the Williamson Act’s applicability in the Chino Valley. By 1997, half of the dairies that had been operating in the preserve at its peak had left. The jousting between Ontario and Chino over annexation of the preserve had begun.
In 1999, while there were still 140 dairies operating in Chino Valley, the city of Ontario annexed nearly 8,200 acres of the 15,200 remaining acres in the preserve. Chino laid claim to the other 7,000. The county, for the most part, alternately passively and actively accepted the inevitability of the pending urbanization. Ontario drew up master plans for development of 31,000 homes, 5 million square feet of retail space and 5 million square feet of industrial space.
Chino designated over 400 acres for industrial development and earmarked 2,000 acres for new residences, with complementary plans for commercial development.
But that anticipated development came only in fits and starts. By 2005, the number of dairies had dwindled to 70. The eventual transformation of the land away from its agricultural heyday was under way in earnest. Nevertheless, the development community’s reach exceeded its grasp and the expected accelerated building boom within the preserve in the early 2000s failed to materialize. With the economic downturn of 2007, building in the area slowed to a crawl. The county, which had acquired some property in the area under the auspices of sustaining agricultural operations as well as under the assumption the land could be sold in relatively short order at a profit, became a landlord to several dairy operations the county’s political leadership and its political supporters wanted to see shelved.
Today, there are about 60 dairies operating in the Chino Valley. Some of those dairies remain because of the ambiguity county officials have had over the demise of the local agricultural industry. So even as forces were pushing local officials to shut the dairies down in accordance with the wishes of the dairymen who wanted to leave, they were being tugged in the opposite direction by forces which sought preservation of at least some of the agricultural operations.
In 1988, a $20 million grant was accepted by the county under Proposition 70, known as the California Wildlife, Coastal and Parkland Conservation Act of 1988, which was applied towards the acquisition of nine dairy properties within the Chino Agricultural Preserve for the purpose of preserving a portion of the county’s agricultural heritage.
After acquiring the properties in the 1990s with the Proposition 70 grant funds, the county oversaw the management of the nine dairies consisting of 366.55 acres. Approximately 165.30 acres are located in the city of Chino situated east of the Chino Airport, and south of Merrill Avenue, and the remaining approximately 201.25 acres are located in the city of Ontario, north of Chino Airport, south of Riverside Drive, and east of Euclid Avenue.
According to Terry W. Thompson, the director of the county’s real estate services department, “With the waning of the dairy industry over the past ten years, and the rapid growth in both Chino and Ontario, the county sought to relocate the Proposition 70 acquisitions to an area outside the path of growth that could sustain an agricultural use into perpetuity for the benefit of the local community, and create a contiguous land mass that could be more easily managed for agricultural and related conservation uses. In recognition of the shifting markets within the Chino Agricultural Preserve, and to accommodate the county’s desire to relocate the county’s Proposition 70 land holdings to a more sustainable location, the State Legislature amended Proposition 70 with the passage of SB 1124 in September 2010, with minor amendments with the passage of AB 1023 in September 2011. SB 1124 authorizes the county to sell or exchange the originally acquired dairy properties it purchased with Proposition 70 grant funds, under the condition that the county preserve all lands and conservation easements acquired as the replacement properties in perpetuity for agricultural preservation, including community gardens, agricultural heritage projects, agricultural and wildlife education or wildlife habitat, or for open space and conservation. SB 1124 required the county to develop a detailed land plan and have that plan preliminarily approved by the California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks) and approved by the county board of supervisors before selling, exchanging, or otherwise acquiring replacement land or conservation easements. State Parks conditionally approved the land plan with minor conditions on August 27, 2012, and the board then approved the land plan on November 6, 2012. On December 17, 2013, the board approved the exchange of approximately 104.73 acres of dairy land in Chino to Watson Land Company in exchange for 271.66 acres of Proposition 70 replacement land contiguous to Prado Park in the city of Chino. This land exchange transaction was completed on March 14, 2014, and provided the county with suitable replacement land, as well as cash in the amount of $6,364,000, which is in the Proposition 70 account. Pursuant to SB 1124, the county must record a conservation easement or an environmental deed restriction on all Proposition 70 replacement land to limit its use to agricultural preservation or open-space conservation purposes. The environmental deed restriction has been approved as to form by State Parks; its recordation on the 271.66 acres of Proposition 70 replacement land will satisfy a critical step in the land plan and in the county’s compliance with its obligations under SB 1124.”
The 271.66 acres of Proposition 70 replacement land is located within the Santa Ana River Mainstem Project – Prado Dam Segment (Project), which is a regional flood control project under the lead of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, with the Orange County Flood Control District serving as the local lead agency. This project is intended to raise the spillway crest of Prado Dam, increasing the flood potential from an elevation of 556 feet to 566 feet behind the dam. The Orange County Flood Control District, under the direction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, is acquiring the fee interest in all property in this area that falls within the new flood inundation elevation, even though the property is outside of Orange County. This Proposition 70 replacement land has been identified by the Orange County Flood Control District as property that may be acquired for this project at a future date. Consequently, the environmental deed restriction includes language that would accommodate its release in favor of a Proposition 70 Conservation easement to San Bernardino County at such time that the Orange County Flood Control District acquires the underlying fee interest in the 271.66 acres. This ensures the county will continue to comply with the conditions set forth in SB 1124 for preservation of this land into perpetuity. When the time comes to sell the fee interest to the Orange County Flood Control District, the San Bernardino County Real Estate Services Department will return to the board to release the environmental deed restriction and record the replacement conservation easement on the land. The county has fulfilled its obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act for this project by posting the notices of exemption with the clerk of the board pursuant to board approval of the county of San Bernardino Land Plan Prop-70 Transformation on November 6, 2012.

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