Agreement reached on Willits Bypass

May 3, 2013

A settlement agreement between the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) will result in improved understanding of the ecological and agricultural benefits of retaining farmland in production, according to CFBF.

CFBF and Caltrans reached an agreement in April to settle CFBF involvement in a legal case regarding the Willits Bypass Project on U.S. Highway 101 in Mendocino County.

In July 2012, CFBF intervened in a lawsuit filed in federal court because of concern about how the project would impact farmland in the Little Lake Valley. Specifically, CFBF was concerned about the amount of farmland the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mitigation strategy required to be removed from production in order to mitigate for wetlands affected by the bypass, and with assuring the effects on farmland received the appropriate level of review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The original lawsuit was filed in May 2012 by four environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Willits Environmental Center, and Environmental Protection Information Center.

CFBF joined the suit in August 2012, with concerns relating to the substantial project impacts on agricultural resources which came after the project’s environmental impact statement (EIS) was approved. The original EIS claimed only 150 acres of farmland would be affected by the project in the Little Lake Valley area. “Six years later, the total acreage of farmland affected by this project has grown to more than 2,000 acres, and there has been no meaningful environmental review of the cumulative effects of such a large-scale conversion of agricultural lands,” CFBF’s motion stated.

While CFBF has dismissed its complaint based on the agreement, the claims of the remaining parties will continue to be litigated in federal court until there is a judicial resolution, which could occur as early as this June.

General terms of the agreement include:

• CFBF and Caltrans agree to participate in further informational discussions regarding how farmland impacts are considered under NEPA.

• Caltrans agrees to cooperate with the University of California, Davis, and UC Cooperative Extension on a long-term study of how grazing management contributes to enhanced wetland function. The study will look at both land owned by the state—where grazing is required—and federally owned land—where grazing is prohibited—and consider how to optimize grazing productivity while achieving the desired wetlands enhancements. The research represents an opportunity to study how natural resources can be preserved and land utilized for both grazing and wetlands.

• Caltrans agrees to meet with farmers and ranchers adjacent to the mitigation lands to discuss concerns about how mitigation requirements may impact their ability to continue to farm and ranch in the area.

“The discussions between Caltrans and farmers in the Willits area should solidify the foundation for agriculture to remain in the area for decades to come,” CFBF President Paul Wenger said, “and the study should help advance the understanding of how to achieve overlapping agricultural and ecological objectives.”

Wenger said CFBF appreciated the willingness of Caltrans officials to listen to concerns about the bypass project’s potential impacts on farmland and noted that CFBF did not oppose the project itself, which will continue to move forward under the original mitigation plan.

“We are very pleased that we have come to this agreement with the Farm Bureau,” said Matt Brady, Caltrans District 1 deputy district director for program/project management. “These discussions have increased our understanding of each other’s needs, and we now have a stronger relationship as we move forward with the Willits Bypass Project, and with other projects in the future.”

The Willits Bypass Project will relieve congestion, reduce delays, and improve safety for traffic and pedestrians along U.S. Route 101 through Willits in Mendocino County, according to a Caltrans press release. This $210 million highway improvement project, now under construction, is funded by $136 million in Proposition 1B funds, the 2006 voter-approved transportation bond. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor