NR 2002-13
March 20, 2002

Contact: Carol Dahmen
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
Ed Wilson
(916) 323-1886


SACRAMENTO – More than 1,800 acres of land was urbanized in neighboring Merced and Madera Counties from 1998-2000, according to maps released today by the California Department of Conservation.

An additional 6,130 acres of farmland in the counties were removed from cultivated farmland classes because they have not shown evidence of use in six or more years.

The maps are designed to help local governments evaluate land-use planning decisions.

The Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program, part of DOC's Division of Land Resource Protection, maps 44.5 million acres of California's public and private land to produce a major study every two years.

In Merced County, 1,040 acres of land were urbanized during the current mapping cycle. Between 1998-2000, net totals of 900 acres of farmland, 44 acres of grazing land and 96 acres of land classified as "other" -- a category that includes wetlands, low-density "ranchettes" and brush or timberlands unsuitable for grazing -- were reclassified as urban land.

In addition, 2,225 acres of Merced County farmland were reclassified as being either grazing land or "other" land in the two-year span, meaning they are no longer in cultivation.

Since the 1992 FMMP survey, 8,337 acres of farmland have been reclassified to other uses and 3,261 acres have been urbanized in Merced County.

Madera County has 830 newly urbanized acres – 354 from farmland, 281 from grazing land and 195 acres from "other" land. Additionally, 3,905 acres of farmland were reclassified to the non-cultivated categories of grazing land and "other" land.

Since 1992, 9,420 acres of farmland have been reclassified to other uses in Madera County, which gained 2,221 acres of urbanized land.

The profiles of Merced and Madera Counties are very similar—each has more than 40 percent of their land in farmland, more than 40 percent grazing land, and approximately 3 percent in urban uses. The California Department of Food and Agriculture assesses the gross value of agricultural production at $1.5 billion in Merced County and $748 million in Madera County in 2000, ranking them fifth and 13th among the state’s 58 counties, respectively. National Forest areas of Madera County are not part of the farmland mapping project.

The new maps have been sent to local planning officials. Interested parties such as the counties’ Farm Bureau, Local Agency Formation Commission, planning consultants and area resource conservation districts have received copies.

"We do this mapping to help counties plan and prepare for their expected growth in the coming years," explained Department of Conservation Director Darryl Young. "This information is a tool that can help Merced and Madera counties and other local governments balance the needs of a growing population with those of the agricultural economy."

The agricultural land in both counties will continue to face development pressure in the foreseeable future. The California Department of Finance projects that Madera County's population will grow from its current 124,300 to 203,200 by 2020, while Merced County’s is expected to grow from 210,000 to 380,000 in that span.

Examples of agricultural land being urbanized in Madera County during the last survey included the 285-acre Riverbend Golf Club east of Madera, a 100-acre addition to the Green Hills Golf Course and housing development north of Madera, and an 80-acre housing project called Oak Creek in the foothill community of Coarsegold.

Several large developments on agricultural land were noted in Merced County, including the 70-acre Delhi Educational Park, a 100-acre development of new homes just south of Atwater along Highway 140, more than 100 acres of new homes around Merced, and 80 acres of new housing on the northern urban fringe of Los Banos.

The latest statewide study by the FMMP, Farmland Conversion Report 1996-98, was released last fall. About 70,000 acres were urbanized throughout the state; more than 43,000 acres of the new urban land, an area about the size of the city of Modesto, were developed on agricultural land.

Through the Department of Conservation, the state offers programs that provide financial incentives to keep land in agricultural use. The California Farmland Conservancy Program makes monies available to local governments, land trusts or resource conservation districts to purchase permanent agricultural conservation easements from willing landowners. These easements prohibit future development. Farmland Security Zone and Williamson Act contracts provide potential tax breaks to landowners who commit to keeping their land in agricultural use for periods of 20 or 10 years, respectively.

In addition to administering agricultural and open-space land conservation programs, the Department of Conservation ensures the reclamation of land used for mining; promotes beverage container recycling; regulates oil, gas and geothermal wells; and studies and maps earthquakes and other geologic phenomena.