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Supervisors seek SALC grant to acquire Sam's Mountain Ranch ag easement

Joe Naiman

Village News Reporter

The County of San Diego has a Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement program which compensates willing property owners for placing an agricultural easement on their property which would limit future uses and eliminate future development.

The State of California has a Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation program which provides agricultural conservation acquisition and planning grants. The Nov. 7 meeting of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors included a 4-0 vote, with one vacant seat, to adopt a resolution authorizing the application of a SALC grant to add Sam’s Mountain Ranch in Pauma Valley to the PACE program.

The acquisition would preserve approximately 450.08 acres at Sam’s Mountain Ranch. The estimated cost to acquire the agricultural conservation easement is $1,535,000. The SALC grant would fund 90% of that cost, or $1,381,500, and would also cover $30,000 for administrative costs so the county is seeking a grant for $1,411,500.

The supervisors’ action also authorizes the director of the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services to execute all required grant documents. The California Environmental Quality Act does not apply to a transfer in ownership with no change of use, so the supervisors also found the grant application authorization exempt from CEQA review.

The county has already preserved 3,341 acres of agricultural land through the PACE program. 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 PACE program.

The resulting PACE program included 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 price of $1,694,000.

The 2013-14 budget process allocated $620,000 to complete the purchase of the 10 ranked properties.

In March 2021, the Board of Supervisors modified the PACE program eligibility requirements. The density reduction requirement was eliminated and eligibility now only requires that the property must have been actively farmed and/or ranched for a minimum of two years immediately before applying for the program and that the property has A70 (Limited Agriculture), A72 (General Agriculture), RR (Rural Residential), S90 (Holding Area), or S92 (General Rural) zoning. The modification increased the eligible land in unincorporated San Diego County from 101,742 to 628,922 acres.

The state’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation program was created in 2014 as a component of the California Strategic Growth Council and is administered by the state's Department of Conservation.

The SALC program is primarily funded through "cap and trade" funds and provides agricultural conservation acquisition and planning grants for programs intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The principal goals of the SALC are to protect at-risk agricultural lands from development by promoting growth within existing jurisdictions, to ensure that open space remains available, to support a healthy agricultural economy, and to avoid increases in greenhouse gas emissions associated with the conversion of agricultural land to more intensive non-agricultural uses.

The guidelines for the most recent cycle of SALC funding were released in April 2023. Funding will be provided for agricultural conservation acquisition capacity, agricultural conservation acquisition grants, and agricultural conservation planning grants.

Sam’s Mountain Ranch is an active avocado and citrus orchard. The land is owned by Sam’s Mountain Ranch, LLC, which is wholly owned by American Farmland Trust. County staff identified the SALC conservation acquisition grant as a potential funding source to acquire the agricultural conservation easement.

If the SALC grant is awarded, the PACE program would fund the county’s $153,500 match for the acquisition while PACE funding would remain available for other acquisitions.

If the grant is awarded, the approval of the actual acquisition would be brought to the Board of Supervisors for action. An independent third-party appraiser would conduct a property-specific appraisal for the easement.


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