Napa Valley Feuds over Land Use Farm Workers Say Agricultural Law in California Drives Up Housing Costs

Article excerpt

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

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. …