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John Driessen has a vision for the 26 acres of verdant farmland he owns on the unincorporated outskirts of San Marcos.

One of his daughters grows wheatgrass there, to sell as catnip or a supplement for athletes. But some day Driessen, a 78-year-old immigrant from the Netherlands, plans to divide his rural land into parcels and give one to each of his three daughters. They’ll build homes there, and create a Driessen family compound of sorts.

That’s the plan, anyway. Whether he’ll ever be able to do that is another matter. Driessen’s property is one of more than 30,000 parcels that stand to be affected by major changes San Diego County is proposing to its general plan, the blueprint for growth in San Diego’s unincorporated areas.

In order to rein in rural sprawl and concentrate population growth in the region’s already-developed towns, the county plans to change the zoning to allow fewer homes on large swaths of undeveloped rural land, while increasing density in town centers.

Under the current plan, Driessen could divide his 26 acres into six four-acre parcels, allowing him to build six homes. Under the proposed plan, he could build only one home for every 10 acres, meaning he could split his land into only two parcels because he owns fewer than 30 acres.

One of his daughters would be left out.

“I cannot give it to them, because I cannot split it equally,” Driessen said. “I want to split it equally for my daughters, wouldn’t you?”

Across the county, farmers and rural land owners are concerned about the implications of the proposal, worrying it will decrease the value of their land. As farming has become less attractive to younger generations, those who made their careers at it often sell their land to fund their retirement.

More than 200 property owners have filed requests asking the county not to rezone their land. The county will analyze those requests on a parcel-by-parcel basis, highlighting but one of the many reasons the county’s general plan update has dragged into its 12th year. Analyzing more than 150,000 individual parcels across 800,000 acres is a tedious task — one that’s been bogged down by opposition like this.

The proposed density decreases have even made strange bedfellows of groups whose interests would not usually align. The San Diego County Farm Bureau partnered with several realtors and builders groups to condemn the general plan update.

Realtors and builders believe the new plan would put too-harsh limitations on future housing development. The farm bureau says the decreased value of farmland would make it harder for farmers to borrow money against the value of their property.

“If the general plan update reduces the value of their land, they take a serious economic hit, which is a hit to their business enterprise,” said Eric Larson, the farm bureau’s executive director.

The farm bureau is pressuring county supervisors to compensate farmers for the decreased value, claiming that the drops could be huge.

Devon Muto, the county’s chief of advance planning, said those claims weren’t supported. Geography, building regulations and the lack of roads and other infrastructure all diminish the actual development potential of much of the county’s land, he said, even if the underlying zoning does allow higher densities.

“Some people are going into this with what we would characterize as unrealistic expectations of what their property would yield,” Muto said, “and they feel that that’s going to be impacting them negatively.”

But he said the county has recognized that the rezoning could diminish some land’s value and has been exploring the creation of several programs to compensate farmers. One of those would pay farmers and other rural land owners to place permanent protections on their property to ensure the land could never be developed.

In other parts of the country, payments for easements range from $2,000 to $15,000 per acre. But the county has not identified enough funding for a similar program in San Diego, and that task may soon be harder because Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed cutting state funding to purchase these types of conservation easements.

Those details don’t much interest Gerald Church, 68, a sturdy white-haired man in a neatly pressed shirt and slacks who just wants his business to succeed. He said he had no plans to sell his land to developers or dismantle his hilltop farming operation in Bonsall, south of Fallbrook, where he employs more than 200 people to propagate plants from tiny cuttings.

In the early 1990s, Church bought his property from a farmer who grew Valencia oranges on it, but was ready to retire. His land on a hill overlooks lush farms on every side, where neighboring farmers grow palm trees and tend citrus groves.

As he walked through one of the 12 greenhouses on his 57 acres, he said he feared the county’s plans to rezone his property could jeopardize the $3.5 million line of credit he has with his bank.

Early each growing season, he borrows against that credit to ramp up operations and hire more workers, and then pays it back as the season progresses and his profits increase.

“Whether they downzone my property or not, my only big issue is that it’s going to affect my banking relationship,” Church said. “I just think it’s unethical to take a guy’s property and destroy the value. To me that’s just like stealing a guy’s land.”

And even he, eventually, will have to do something with his land, he said. Everyone does.

Church is one of the 200 landowners who has asked the County Board of Supervisors not to rezone his land.

Muto said the decision on whether or not to grant those requests would be up to the supervisors, but that granting them could undermine the vision set out by the general plan because many of the requests directly conflict with the plan’s goals of limiting rural growth.

“If you get to that level, you have to rewrite your objectives, and you’re back to square one.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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