The San Diego Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of agricultural conservation easements on two properties, including one in Pauma Valley.
The supervisors' 4-0 vote Nov. 16, with Greg Cox absent due to a National Association of Counties meeting, allows county staff to proceed with easement purchases in Pauma Valley and Ramona. The Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement program will ensure the agricultural preservation of 211.54 acres off of Cole Grade Road in Pauma Valley and 81.99 acres in Ramona. The Pauma Valley easement was purchased for its appraised easement value of $608,470.
"This is a benefit to agriculture," said Supervisor Bill Horn. "I hope to see more landowners utilize the agricultural conservation easement program in the future."
In August 2011, the Board of Supervisors approved an update to the county's general plan. The update directed county staff to develop a pilot Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) program to compensate willing property owners for placing an agricultural easement on their property which would limit future uses and eliminate future development.
The resulting PACE program includes three eligibility requirements: the property must have been actively farmed or ranched for at least two years prior to the application, the general plan update must have reduced the property's density, and the property must have had the ability to be subdivided prior to the general plan update.
Between 500 and 600 property owners expressed interest in taking part in the program, and 60 property owners submitted applications for the pilot program. The applications were ranked on criteria established by the PACE advisory group. The primary ranking factor was the density reduction due to the general plan update, and other ranking criteria included agricultural viability and the ability to contribute to the assemblage of the Multiple Species Conservation Program.
The pilot program included a $2 million allocation covering $212,000 for independent third-party appraisals and $15,000 for title and escrow expenses as well as the funding to purchase the easements.
The appraisal which determined the value of the agricultural easements used the California Farmland Conservancy Program traditional approach which estimates the market value of the land if unencumbered and the market value of the land with the conservation easement and then determines the easement value by subtracting the encumbered appraisal value from the value of the unencumbered property.
The 10 properties with the highest ranking were appraised during the pilot program. The property owners ranked second and fifth declined the easement offers while the owners of five properties totaling 10 legal parcels provided "willing seller letters" including two Fallbrook ownerships with a combined 138.17 acres.
The acceptance of those five property owners exhausted the available funding, so offers were not made for the remaining ranked properties and appraisals were not made for the properties not ranked in the top 10. In July 2013, the Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of the five properties totaling 738 acres for a cumulative purchase price of $1,694,000.
The 2013-14 budget process allocated $620,000 to complete the purchase of the 10 ranked properties. Two of those owners declined the easement offers while the owner of a 44-acre parcel in Lakeside accepted the easement purchase agreement. The remaining $560,000 was added to the $94,000 from the original $2 million to cover future purposes.
In December 2013, the county supervisors directed staff to work on acquiring easements from the 16 properties not funded during the pilot program while referring the acquisition costs of those properties to the 2014-15 budget process.
In September 2014, the supervisors approved the acquisition of easements on eight properties for $1,319,850 including a 19.14-acre Bonsall parcel whose easement was valued at $190,000, and that action also directed staff to include up to $1.5 million for PACE acquisitions in the 2015-16 budget.
The intent of that budget direction was to have an ongoing program, and funding was also included in the 2016-17 budget which was approved June 28.
The county's Department of Planning and Development Services received 77 applications for the PACE program during 2015-16, and 37 applications totaling 1,288.7 acres were deemed eligible.
The Ramona easement will be purchased for $361,500. An additional $5,000 for title and escrow costs will bring the county's total expenditure to $974,970. The county has a $411,056 balance from fiscal year 2015-16, so only $563,914 of 2016-17 PACE funding will be used and $936,086 of current fiscal year budget will be available for future easement purchases.
The Pauma Valley easement covers six legal parcels owned by Few Acres Ranch, LLC, and the John Dwight Beck Family Trust. The Ramona easement is part of a single parcel. A 5-0 Board of Supervisors vote Oct. 19 set the Nov. 16 hearing date for the easement acquisitions.
"I think this is just a great program," said Supervisor Dave Roberts. "I'm just really pleased that we're continuing to add to that."