Willits bypass: CFBF takes legal action to protect farmland

Issue Date: July 25, 2012
By Christine Souza

Farmland losses for a Northern California highway project have ballooned without sufficient study of the environmental impact, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation, which moved last week to intervene in an existing lawsuit regarding a bypass around the city of Willits.

In U.S. District Court in San Francisco last Friday, Farm Bureau filed documents to intervene in litigation charging that state and federal transportation agencies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted inadequate environmental review of the Willits Bypass Project on U.S. Highway 101. CFBF requested that the court require state and federal agencies to review and reduce the impact on agricultural land, particularly from wetlands mitigation to allow construction of the project.

"Farmland plays an important role in the economy and the environment, both in Mendocino County and statewide," CFBF President Paul Wenger said. "All too often, public agencies try to convert farmland as a convenient way to address other issues. But that comes at an environmental cost, and the agencies in the Willits Bypass Project didn't work hard enough to review that."

Farm Bureau says the defendants in the case—the Federal Highway Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Transportation—failed to conduct adequate environmental analysis as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, in approving the proposed bypass.

In its motion, Farm Bureau stated that the bypass originally would have affected 150 acres of farmland. But now, more than 2,000 acres of land will be affected—with 400 acres removed permanently from agricultural use—as government agencies seek agricultural land to mitigate for wetlands affected by the bypass. Much of the farmland that would be taken out of production for the bypass would be converted to wetlands, to make up for loss of existing wetlands in the path of the project.

"We don't oppose the bypass, but we do oppose the potential for an extraordinarily high loss of farmland that the agencies would require to build it and to mitigate for its wetlands impacts," CFBF Associate Counsel Kari Fisher said. "For every acre of wetlands the agencies want to mitigate, they would impact 30 acres of farmland. That significant impact would have a ripple effect on the area's agricultural-based economy, particularly for the farming and ranching families who would lose their land."

Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones expressed concern about how the Willits Bypass Project will impact mitigation for future projects that involve agricultural properties.

"Mendocino County Farm Bureau is concerned about the precedent that the mitigation process for the Willits bypass is setting, and the potential effects it could have on agricultural operations throughout the state that may be involved with similar (Clean Water Act) Section 404 permitting processes," Jones said. "We are not against the project; we are against the impacts to agriculture."

Farm Bureau says the agencies violated environmental law "by failing to conduct adequate environmental review of the proposed project's impacts on agricultural land and the environmental services provided by that land."

A hearing on the Farm Bureau motion to intervene in the lawsuit is scheduled for Aug. 31. At the same time, a hearing is set on a motion to dismiss the suit, filed by Caltrans.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.