Three State Bills Worth Watching: Urban Ag, Farm Protection and a Soda Tax
by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
April 2, 2013

Image courtesy Flickr user jimmywayne

Of the many food and agriculture bills California legislators have introduced this year, three stand out for their potential impact on the Bay Area’s food system: a tax incentive to promote the use of private land for urban agriculture; a change to CEQA to require agricultural land preservation for certain projects; and a statewide sugary-beverage tax. Here’s a closer look at these bills, which we will be tracking this year.

Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Act (AB 551)

Introduced by San Francisco’s recently elected assembly member Phil Ting, this legislation would incentivize the use of private land for urban agriculture by reducing the property tax assesment on qualifying parcels dedicated to city farming. The bill would permit counties to pass ordinances establishing “Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones” within their boundaries. In these incentive zones, private property owners would be eligible to apply to enter a contract with the county restricting their undeveloped property to urban agricultural use in exchange for a revised tax assessment based on the agricultural use of the land. The program is loosely modeled after the Williamson Act and, as with that legislation, counties could opt into the program but will not be required to do so. Similarly, private landowner participation would be completely voluntary.

One of the biggest obstacles to expanding urban agriculture within California is access to land. This legislation provides an incentive to private landowners to make more land available for urban agriculture, while at the same time enabling them to do so at a lowered cost, which is especially critical for the viability of commercial urban farms.

California Farmland Protection Act (AB 823)

According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), each year an average of 30,000 acres of farmland is converted to non-agricultural use in California. The California Farmland Protection Act, supported by AFT, the California Climate and Agriculture Network and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, aims to address this. The bill would require developers to either 1) permanently protect an acre of farmland for every acre they develop as part of the mitigation process in the California Environmental Quality Act or 2) build more densely. Developers could protect agricultural land through either direct purchase of a conservation easement or payment of a fee to a public or private agricultural land conservancy to purchase a conservation easement. For projects that develop farmland within city limits, the developers could also meet the requirements by demonstrating that the development achieves a density at least twice that of the statewide average. The legislation recognizes that agricultural land preservation complements infill development as a smart-growth land use strategy and attempts to permanently preserve agricultural land while also increasing the cost of sprawl.

Sweetened Beverage Tax Law (SB 622)

Though proposals for city-level taxes on sugary drinks in Richmond and El Monte failed at the ballot box in November 2012, momentum continues building for public health legislation targeting sodas and similar drinks. The Sweetened Beverage Tax Law would require distributors to pay a one-cent tax for every fluid ounce of bottled sweetened beverage or concentrate they distribute. The revenue from the tax, estimated to be more than $1.5 billion annually, would go toward a Children’s Heath Promotion Fund. The fund would then distribute 65 percent of the money through the state Department of Public Health for childhood obesity prevention efforts and childhood dental programs, run by the department, community groups and medical providers. The remaining 35 percent would go to school districts for public health initiatives that improve childhood nutrition and physical activity. 

As the bills have only recently been introduced, SPUR has not yet taken a position on any of them. Though the fate of each of these bills in the legislature is unclear, each illustrates that California continues to be at the forefront of developing food and agriculture policy that intersects with the areas of land-use, economic development and public health.

Read Earth Island Journal's article about the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone legislation >>

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