Mon09012014

Mountain View on the Move

Local group hosting event to promote organic farm, despite impending land sale


TOWN CRIER FILE PHOTO
Grant Road Farm's pumpkin patch remains an October community highlight. A resident group is trying to preserve 5 acres of the farm property as an organic farm.

In what appears to be a reprise effort to thwart the sale of the last remaining farmland in Mountain View, Grant Road Farm, to developers for residential housing, a local citizen's group has scheduled a community event Sept. 30 to raise awareness for the need to set aside 5 acres for an organic farm on the site. The gathering is set for 8:30-11 a.m. at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on Grant Road.

"Why Should We Save the Last Farm?" sponsored by the Mountain View Farmlands Group, will feature a panel of speakers, including chef Jesse Z. Cool, familiar with organic farming and land-use techniques.

Summerhill Homes of Palo Alto negotiated the purchase of the privately owned Grant Road Farm for an estimated sale price of $29 million, according to the Farmlands group. The sale has not been finalized as of this date.

"Almost all the transactions are done," said Katia Kamangar, senior vice president of Summerhill Homes. "There's a lengthy escrow."

Rallying under the motto "Farmland that is paved over is lost forever," the group hopes to muster enough citizen support to persuade the Mountain View City Council and the developer that a 5-acre, year-round organic farm can be a profitable business and is a necessary part of the community and the Bay Area at large.

Their primary goal is to have the city council rezone the property from residential use to a mixed use residential-agricultural development. Or, set aside areas of the property that are rendered unusable while "carving out a 5-acre parcel," according to Vicki Moore, co-chairwoman of the Mountain View Farmlands Group.

To get leverage over the council and the developer, the group uses several strategies, including appeals to residents and invoking the city's General Plan, Parks and Open Space policy that states "the City should support efforts ... to preserve agricultural lands if they become available," Moore said.

The debate about the best future use of Grant Road Farm is not new. The same concerned citizens proposed ideas about maintaining the farm's agricultural roots in 2000 and 2001, Moore said.

At that time, the city council, the owners and the attorneys representing the owners were not receptive to alternate use ideas, Moore said.

Little has changed, including the cast of characters. The sellers, the buyers and the attorneys still aren't receptive to the organic farm idea.

"We showed them how the sellers could save money by setting up an easement for the organic farm," Moore said. "The sellers' attorney was very upset," she said. "He made it clear - how dare we speak out at a public meeting about it."

The attorney and the sellers have refused to speak with Moore, she said. Moore maintains that Mountain View and the surrounding area need an organic farm.

"We need to preserve this farmland so our children can have ... a firsthand experience learning how food is grown," according to the group's Web site.

Grant Road Farm attracts thousands of visitors each year, many of them children. In October, an estimated 10,000 visitors come to the farm to experience the Pumpkin Patch.

The property is part of unincorporated Santa Clara County. The city of Mountain View first must decide whether to annex it. The land is currently prezoned "R-1," for residential development, according to Mountain View City Councilman Tom Means.

Adding another dimension to the debate is the financial viability of operating an organic farm.

"The owners have stated that the farm option does not generate enough revenue," Means said in an e-mail to the Town Crier. "The current tenant admitted this recently by revealing that most of the revenue comes from the entertainment part of the operation."

Moore has a different view.

"We're conducting a feasibility study, she said. "We've identified a series of planning techniques that will allow a lot more development ... a creative way to permit just as much profitability."

"It's not feasible to turn it into a farm," Kamangar said. "The reality is that small farms in urban settings are no longer viable."

The city council will review the future of the Grant Road Farm property in January when Summerhill Homes submits a formal proposal to develop the site, Kamangar said.

By January, there could be three new city councilmembers, which could be a wild card in the fate of the property. That keeps Moore hopeful.

"The candidates have been open to the farm," Moore said. "With the current council majority, I'm not very optimistic."

Not all councilmembers are opposed to the organic farm idea.

"Preserving some agricultural land in the middle of our small town is a worthwhile venture," said Councilwoman Laura Macias.

For more information, visit www.mvfarmland.org.

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