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Aerial photos chart vanishing farmland

El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties saw dramatic urban growth.

By Mary Lynne Vellinga -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, August 19, 2004

Figures released by the state Wednesday confirmed what any longtime Sacramento-area resident has probably noticed - we've been paving over a lot of farmland around here.

Infrared, aerial photographs compiled by the California Department of Conservation provide a full-color picture of what happened in the six-county region between 2000 and 2002. During that period, 12,614 acres of farmland and pasture were urbanized, up slightly from the 12,155 acres lost between 1998 and 2000.

El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties experienced dramatic increases in the amount of land being converted from farmland to subdivisions between 2000 and 2002, while the pace of urbanization in Sacramento County slowed somewhat.

The amount of farmland lost in Yolo County more than tripled, from 353 acres to 1,260 acres. The jump stemmed largely from residential building in Davis, Woodland and West Sacramento. In Placer County, Roseville alone added 1,300 acres of new housing and commercial development in the two-year period.

Conservation Department Director Darryl Young unveiled the figures at a news conference staged alongside a drainage canal in North Natomas, an area composed predominantly of prime farmland that is rapidly turning over to subdivisions.

On one side of the drainage canal sits the city of Sacramento, where the landscape is fast being blanketed with houses. The other side, which lies within the unincorporated county, remains rural.

Because of the two-year lag in the data, most of the development in North Natomas was not captured in the figures released Wednesday. But Young displayed more recent aerial photos showing how the landscape in North Natomas changed between 1999 and late 2003.

The new photo contained a lot less red and a lot more mottled gray, indicating conversion from farms to houses. Subdivisions, some surrounding artificial lakes, have replaced the agricultural fields that dominated the picture just four years earlier.

"All these homes that are here now were not here in 1999," Young said, gesturing toward the wall of tract houses in front of him. The maps, he said, "Confirm what you know. But in a visual way."

Young said his department is not making any judgments about whether growth is good or bad. But he said the farmland conversion maps are a valuable tool for local decision-makers to use when considering whether to approve development.

"You can't have smart growth without smart information," he said.

The maps also show different grades of farmland, ranging from prime soil to pastureland. They can also illustrate whether a proposed development is contiguous to an existing urban area, or whether it is isolated in the middle of fields.

Young said his department uses the maps to help decide when to use state funds to buy agricultural easements. Such easements preserve land in farming for perpetuity. The Legislature created them in an effort to maintain farmland that might otherwise be developed.

"You can build houses anywhere, but you can't grow crops anywhere," Young said. "This valley has some of the best farmland in the state."

Farmland is also disappearing from crop production statewide for other reasons besides suburban-style development. Such land falls into a catch-all category of "other," but can include such uses as habitat preserves, rural residential development, mining and dairy farming.






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