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— What do you get when you launder money in a henhouse or a pigsty? Filthy lucre, according to proponents of Proposition A, the Rural Lands Initiative that would attempt to thwart development sprawl into the backcountry.

Attacks against the initiative feature farmers wailing that their honorable livelihood will be curtailed. But the money for those political ads is provided by the real estate industry, just as it was in 1998 when a similar measure, Proposition B, was voted down.

The San Diego County Farm Bureau does the talking, and real estate interests do the bankrolling. And that raises the big question: do some farmers who own backcountry property intend to continue farming it? Or is their real agenda to make money farming as they reap agricultural tax relief, then get rich selling their land to developers?

In 1998, about two-thirds of the money to beat Prop. B came from realty pushers, according to the proponents. Among the big donors then: Builders Association and Contractors Political Action Committee, $43,000; Building Industry Association of San Diego County, $10,000; San Diego Board of Realtors, $40,000; and National Association of Home Builders, $27,000.

Data from the Registrar of Voters show a similar pattern in donations to defeat Prop. A. Last year, about $75,000 of the $119,000 raised to beat the measure in the upcoming March 2 election came from realty interests. Genesee Properties, which is working to subdivide Julian's Hoskings Ranch, gave $25,000; Gildred Building Co., $5000; Valley View Partnership, $5000; San Diego Board of Realtors, $15,000; Atomic Investments, $15,000; and Canta Rana Ranch Land Co., $10,000.

January donations show a similar pattern, and Duncan McFetridge, the major voice of Prop. A, is worried that a flood of expensive advertising will roll over the county in the days before the election. "Last time they did a blitzkrieg of advertising the last two weeks and caught us completely off guard," he says.

Funds pouring from real estate fat cats to the farm bureau "is like laundering money," says La Mesa mayor Art Madrid, a supporter of Save Our Forest and Ranchlands, which is pushing for Prop. A. Real estate interests "have to find a respectable name, so the money is laundered through the farm bureau."

Says Dan Brimm, a Julian rancher, "The farm bureau seems to be an agent for developers." All across the country, the bureau "is into things that have nothing to do with farming," says Brimm, citing a 60 Minutes show four years ago that revealed the bureau's ownership of an insurance company and investments in large agribusiness corporations. Such activity hardly benefits the small farmer, which the bureau is supposed to represent, says Brimm.

Putting the farmers front and center is a marketing ploy, says Linda Frazee, who lost her rural home in the fires. "Farming has a marvelous connotation to all of us -- it's a noble profession, an integral part of our country," and that's why real estate moneybags use farmers' sob stories to beat Prop. A. "But the idea that the initiative is bad for farmers is false, fallacious."

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, readily admits that real estate interests are filling the bureau's coffers to fight the initiative. "It's transparent," says Larson. Real estate plutocrats "are not trying to hide anything. It makes no sense for them to wage their own particular campaign."

The initiative would create a "clean water and forest overlay" for 694,000 acres in the northern and eastern parts of the county, keeping construction down to one house per 40 or 80 acres or, in the far-out fringes, 160 acres. It should preserve farming, not threaten it, says McFetridge.

The issues are clear-cut. As philanthropist and arts aficionado Ellen Revelle, honorary chair of the initiative, says, the city can't be saved without saving the countryside. San Diego has a huge infrastructure deficit: continued sprawl would exacerbate it. Mayoral candidate Peter Q. Davis backs Prop. A, as do major labor unions, environmentalists, the Housing Affordability Council, and a majority of city councilmembers. The council gave it the nod by a 5-4 vote Monday.

The county, which has tangled with McFetridge for years, opposes it. Officials of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, not surprisingly, voted 30 to 1 against it. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association -- which traditionally has more interest in protecting its donors than taxpayers -- also opposes it.

In addition to blocking sprawl, proponents say the initiative should improve water quality; prevent pollution of wetlands, beaches, and bays; protect forests; and encourage transit-friendly development.

The farm bureau says the initiative won't stop development; it will just shift it to existing cities, creating more traffic congestion. It won't help farmers or protect forests, claim the opponents. And big developers will be the only ones who will be able to afford the countywide elections that will be needed to get projects approved.

But the farm bureau pushes one extremely dubious argument: that backcountry property owners should be reimbursed for any losses they suffer. In a letter to members sent January 16, the president of the farm bureau said a major argument against the initiative is that "Farmers and property owners who have their land devalued by Prop. A will receive no compensation."

Similarly, on its website, the "No on Prop. A" faction says, "It's not fair to longtime property owners who purchased land and paid taxes based on existing rules but won't be able to use it as originally planned."

Translation: Some people bought the land cheap, used it for agricultural purposes to make money and get tax breaks -- all the while expecting to unload it for development at enormous profits. Avocado farming, for example, can be very profitable, but if the business sours -- and even if it doesn't -- some farmers want to be able to sell their land to developers.

"Some of them bought that land for $50 to $100 an acre," says McFetridge. Most important, he points out that courts have consistently held that the possibility of zoning changes is a risk of owning real estate. And, asks McFetridge, who in the world could reimburse these landholders for zoning changes? What governmental body could afford it?

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