To further understand the Commission’s guidance and interpretation of Agricultural Resources policies, view the webcast of, or read the memo, of the Agricultural Resources: Informational Guide for the Permitting of Agricultural Development held at the May 2017 Commission hearing.
Coastal Agricultural Resources Basics
The Coastal Act requires the protection of agricultural resources in the coastal zone by directly mandating that the maximum amount of prime agricultural land be maintained in production, and by strictly limiting the conversion of any agricultural land (prime and non-prime) to nonagricultural uses. Conflicts between agricultural and urban uses are to be minimized by establishing stable urban/rural boundaries, buffers (where necessary) between uses, and ensuring that adjacent development does not diminish agricultural productivity. Non-prime agricultural land that is currently in use for crops or grazing or that is otherwise suitable for agriculture can physically buffer prime agricultural lands from conflicts with other uses as well as support production on prime lands. Agricultural resources can also include specialized agricultural uses such as greenhouse operations, community gardens, and plant nursery operations.
- Conversions of agricultural lands to nonagricultural uses are only allowed under limited circumstances, such as when they are surrounded by urban uses.
- Conversions of agricultural lands around the periphery of urban areas may occur only where the viability of agricultural is severely limited or where conversion would complete a logical and viable neighborhood and contribute to a stable urban limit.
- Conversions of other lands suitable for agricultural use are allowed only when continued or renewed agricultural use is infeasible or economically unviable, when they would preserve prime land or where they would concentrate development.
- Any permitted conversion must be compatible with continued agricultural use on surrounding lands.
Coastal Act section 30250, cited in sections 30241 and 30242, also works to protect rural agricultural lands by directing that new development be located in existing developed areas and that land divisions outside of urban areas, other than for agricultural leases, not result in parcel sizes that can compromise agricultural viability.
These Coastal Act requirements are implemented in order to protect an area’s agricultural economy and concentrate development in and around existing developed areas. Given the increasing loss of agricultural land within the coastal zone, the need to protect and maintain active or viable agricultural land is a high priority for the Commission and affected local agencies.
Coastal Act Policies Related to Coastal Agricultural Resources
The Coastal Act policies that address coastal hazards and shoreline development include Sections 30235, 30236, and 30253 through 30214, 30500(a), and 30604(c). Important sections of the Coastal Act to consider for Caltrans projects include:
Coastal Act Section 30113 states: "Prime agricultural land" is land that meets one or more of the following, as referenced in paragraphs (1)-(4) of Section 51201 of the California Government Code:
- a rating as class I or class II in the Natural Resource Conservation Service Land use capability classifications;
- a rating 80 through 100 in the Storie Index Rating; or
- the ability to support livestock used for the production of food and fiber with an annual carrying capacity equivalent to at least one animal unit per acre as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture; or
- the ability to normally yield in a commercial bearing period on an annual basis not less than two hundred dollars ($200) per acre of unprocessed agricultural plant production of fruit- or nut-bearing trees, vines, bushes or crops which have a nonbearing period of less than five years.
- Coastal Act Section 30241 states (in part): The maximum amount of prime agricultural land shall be maintained in agricultural production to assure the protection of the areas’ agricultural economy, and conflicts shall be minimized between agricultural and urban land uses. By limiting conversions of agricultural lands around the periphery of urban areas to the lands where the viability of existing agricultural use is already severely limited by conflicts with urban uses or where the conversion of the lands would complete a logical and viable neighborhood and contribute to the establishment of a stable limit to urban development.
- Coastal Act Section 30242 states: All other lands suitable for agricultural use shall not be converted to nonagricultural uses unless (1) continued or renewed agricultural use is not feasible, or (2) such conversion would preserve prime agricultural land or concentrate development consistent with Section 30250. Any such permitted conversion shall be compatible with continued agricultural use on surrounding lands.
- Coastal Act Section 30250 states (in part): New residential, commercial, or industrial development, except as otherwise provided in this division, shall be located within, contiguous with, or in close proximity to, existing developed areas able to accommodate it or, where such areas are not able to accommodate it, in other areas with adequate public services and where it will not have significant adverse effects, either individually or cumulatively, on coastal resources. In addition, land divisions, other than leases for agricultural uses, outside existing developed areas shall be permitted only where 50 percent of the usable parcels in the area have been developed and the created parcels would be no smaller than the average size of surrounding parcels.
- Coastal Act Section 30243 states (in part): The long-term productivity of soils and timberlands shall be protected.
Agricultural resources considerations when developing your project and preparing to submit a coastal development permit
When applying for a CDP from the Commission or a local agency for a project that proposes to convert agricultural land to nonagricultural uses, it is critical to assess potential impacts to agriculture because of the Coastal Act protections for both prime and non-prime agricultural lands. In addition to the Coastal Act, a local government’s certified Local Coastal Program (LCP) may contain provisions and policies limiting conversion of agricultural lands. If LCP policies do not allow new agricultural conversions, then an LCP amendment, approved by a local agency or the Commission, may potentially be necessary to facilitate subsequent approval of a CDP for the project from the local agency. Key considerations to help determine your project’s consistency with applicable agricultural resource policies and its potential for approval include:
- Baseline: There are some cases where the Commission has approved conversion of agricultural land to a nonagricultural use because the conversions could be found consistent with limitations on conversions contained in Coastal Act Sections 30241 and 30242 based on the circumstances of the individual jurisdiction. Information that may be necessary to support a request for conversion of agricultural land includes a detailed report of the parcel’s economic viability, including an economic evaluation of the gross revenue and operational costs, excluding land values, of crops in the geographic areas of the proposed conversion. The requirements for an economic feasibility evaluation are included in Coastal Act Section 30241.5.
- Alternatives Analysis: Due to strict Coastal Act protection of coastal agricultural land, a thorough alternatives analysis is required to determine if a more appropriate alignment, design, or buffer alternative would be feasible to avoid conversion of agricultural lands. The Commission is required to identify the least environmentally damaging alternative when making findings pertaining to agricultural resources.
- Avoidance and Minimization: The analysis of project impacts on agricultural resources should discuss avoidance of agricultural lands (such as where the footprint of the project has been reduced or realigned). The use of mitigation measures alone will not ensure a project can be approved by the Commission; however, where impacts are unavoidable, robust mitigation measures such as agricultural deed restrictions, agricultural conservation easements, and development and implementation of community garden programs have previously been approved by the Commission for Caltrans projects.
- Conflict Resolution: In exceptional circumstances, the Commission has the ability to use the Coastal Act’s “conflict resolution” provisions (Sections 30007.5 and 30200(b)) to approve development that is inconsistent with one or more Coastal Act policies. In cases where either approval or denial of a project would result in conflicts between Chapter 3 Coastal Act resource protection policies, these provisions allow the Commission to select the course of action that, on balance, is the most protective of significant coastal resources, even if it will cause impacts that are generally prohibited by the Act.* In these cases, there must also be no feasible less environmentally damaging alternative, and mitigation measures must be provided to minimize adverse environmental effects.
*Note: When a project is neither located in original (retained) Commission jurisdiction nor the local agency and the Commission agree to process a consolidated CDP, an LCP amendment may be required for a project to proceed in a local government’s permit jurisdiction because conflict resolution is only available to resolve a conflict in the Chapter 3 policies of the Coastal Act.