The Future is Now: Central Valley Farmland at the Tipping Point?
Executive Summary
Resumen Ejecutivo
Current Trends
     Population Growth
  Farmland Use and Development
  Quality of Farmland Developed
  Efficiency of Urban Development
  "Ranchettes" & Other Rural Development
  Agricultural Trends
Local Plans & Performance
  Analytical Method
  Sutter County
  Sacramento County
  Yolo County
  San Joaquin County
  Stanislaus County
  Merced County
  Madera County
  Fresno County
  Tulare County
  Kings County
  Kern County
Where is The Valley Heading?
Time for Change
  Ideas for Change
What You Can Do
  Rank Your County
  Local Official Contacts
  Local Organizations
  Support AFT
Methodology & Background Data
About AFT in California

Merced County
Comparison of Plans & Performance

Basic Plan Information Highlights

Merced County General Plan - adopted in 2000
[Merced County Plan Map] PDF
Update Now in Progress!- get involved

City of Merced General Plan - adopted 1997
[City of Merced Plan Map] PDF

Merced LAFCo Policies

We are sorry that we were not able to provide planning information for every city in the county. If officials or residents of those cities provide us with relevant data and information, we will make every effort to update this web site.

The new University of California Merced has been, and will continue to be, a major driver of development in the county. Concern for protection of vernal pools in the foothills may push development associated with the campus onto Valley floor cropland.

The Merced County Farmland & Open Space Trust is the oldest agricultural land trust in the Valley.

[Click for a Table Summarizing County Performance Data and Rank Compared to Other Counties]

Do local plans and their implementation provide certainty by clearly and consistently (without too many changes) indicating where urban development should occur and where agriculture should remain the preferred, long-term use of land?

[Click here for an explanation of this question]

What the Plans Intend

What Is Actually Happening

"Clear bounaries between agricultural and urban areas are identified and land use buffers are provided." Objective 3A, Merced County General Plan (MCGP), Agricultural Chapter, at VII-53

“Urban development shall occur only within adopted urban boundaries of cities, unincorporated communities and other urban centers."”  Policy 1, MCGP, at I-41. 

“All suburban non-agricultural housing activity [to be] located within existing designated Rural Residential Centers (RRC).”  Objective 4A, MCGP, at I-50.

Conversion of agricultural and other rural land into urban uses shall only be allowed where a clear and immediate need can be demonstrated based on anticipated growth and availability of public services and facilities.  For proposals to expand an existing community into rural lands the available vacant land inventory within the urban boundary shall also be considered.”  Policy 1, MCGP, at I-55.

"Protect agricultural areas outside the City’s Specific Urban Development Plan (SUDP) from urban impacts." Policy OS-2.1, City of Merced General Plan (CMGP), Open Space Element, Chapter 7


Percentage of urban & built-up land outside city spheres of influence: 19% (Rank 5)

[Click here to see a map of actual development 1990-2000]

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Click the icon to download it for free.

There are now 24 separate urban centers (SUDPs) designated by the county. MCDP, at I-7.

Rural Residential Centers now comprise 6,400 acres in communities scattered within the agricultural zone. Only 20% of this land was developed in 1990.

In its general plan update process, the City of Merced is considering potential development of an area twice as large (40,000 acres) as its current urban expansion plan covers. (See Update above) "This analysis reveals that the existing SUDP's with public sewer service could accommodate about 347,550 additional people, 3.7 times the 1980 population [and 1.7 times the 2000 population]... The conclusion drawn from this analysis is that more than enough land is provided within the existing SUDP boundaries to accommodate projected growth well past the year 2000." MCGP, Ag Chapter, at VII-16

Do local plans and their implementation avoid development of high quality farmland in favor of less productive land?

[Click here for an explanation of this question]

What the Plans Intend

What Is Actually Happening

“Direct urban uses to less valuable farmland when conversion is justified.”  Policy 2, MCGP, at I-55. 

"At the time of adoption of a sphere of influence for a city ... efforts to direct growth away from large concentrations of prime agricultural land shall be demonstrated, recognizing that some conversion of prime lands may be inevitable." Merced LAFCO, Agricultural Policy 2

"Relieve pressures on converting areas containing large concentrations of 'prime' agricultural soils to urban uses by providing adequate urban development land within the Merced City SUDP." Policy OS-2.2, CMGP, Open Space Element, Chapter 7

Proportion of all land developed 1990-2000 that was High Quality Farmland: 59% (Rank 6)

High Quality Farmland as a proportion of all FMMP mapped land in county: 44%

• High Quality Farmland as a proportion of undeveloped land within city spheres of influence: 51% (Rank 2)

Land Development Quality Index:  1.35 (Rank 8)

Do local plans and their implementation protect agriculture by limiting and buffering incompatible residential development?

[Click here for an explanation of this issue]

What the Plans Intend

What Is Actually Happening

"Compact urban development boundaries which utilize land efficiently and reduce conflicts with agricultural and open space lands." Objective 1A, MCGP, at I-41

Permissible residential use of Agricultural Lands: Agricultural – One dwelling per 20 acres; Foothill Pasture – One dwelling unit per 160 acres. Additional dwellings and greater building coverage may be approved under Conditional Use Permit review. MCGP, at I-16

“The parcelization of large holdings is discouraged.” Objective 2B, MCGP, Agricultural Chapter, at VII-51

Investigate methods and incentives for increasing the minimum parcel sizes for agriculturally zoned land where appropriate using existing parcel sizes, soil quality and other relevant factors as may be determined.”  Policy 4, MCGP, Agricultural Chapter, at VII-51

Developed 1.5-10 ac ranchette acreage: 7,101 (Rank 6)

Ranchettes as a percentage of urbanized land: 22% (Rank 7)

[Click here for map of ranchette development in Merced County] PDF

The MCGP states that there are 72,700 acres in the Agricultural zone. If all this land were developed at the permissible rate of one dwelling per 20 acres, 3,635 ranchettes would result.   MCGP, Ag Chapter, at VII-25. The Plan explicitly acknowledges that 20 acres is not large enough to discourage conversions to rural residential uses.  MCGP, at VII-22.

Do local plans and their implementation promote efficient "smart" development that minimizes farmland conversion while making communities more livable and sustainable?

[Click here for an explanation of this issue]

What the Plans Intend

What is Actually Happening

"Infilling of development in urban areas shall be encouraged." Objective 2A, Policy 3, MCGP, Ag Chapter, at VII-51

"The purpose of using the urban centered concept to plan land use is to ensure that ... land is utilized efficiently." MCGP, at I-6

"Encourage infill development and a compact urban form." Policy L-3.2, CMGP, Chapter 3

"Support increased densities in residential areas." Policy H- 1.1, CMGP, Housing Chapter, Chapter 9

"Create land use patterns that will encourage people to walk, bicycle, or use public transit for an increased number of daily trips." Policy L-3.1, CMGP, Chapter 3

People per urbanized acre 2000: 5.5 (Rank 8)

People per urbanized acre, new development 1990-2000: 9.4
(Rank 3)

• Undeveloped land within city spheres of influence: 50,839 acres (Rank 6) as percentage of 2020 need at current efficiencies: 318% (Rank 8)

Vehicle Miles Traveled Per Household 2000: 29,458 (Rank 8)
Change from 1990: +6.7% (Rank 8)

The Merced County General Plan contains five residential land use designations:
- Agricultural Residential, typically located in RRC’s at the edge of urban areas: maximum density of 1 du/ac. - Very Low Density Residential, typically in areas which lack public water and sewer: maximum density of 3.5 du/ac. - Low Density Residential areas provide the majority
of housing opportunities in the unincorporated County: maximum density of 8 du/ac.
- Medium and High Density Residential applied to SUDPs: maximum of 15 du/ac in Medium Density areas and up to 33 du/ac in High Density areas. MCGP, at I-18 and Table I-3, at I-24

Note on Ranking: The Central Valley counties included in this report are ranked to enable a comparison of their performance in preserving farmland and encouraging "smart growth." A rank of 1 (among the 11 counties studied) indicates the best relative performance, a rank of 11 indicates the worst relative performance. Rankings are based on percentage change (where it is given), amount of change (where no percentage change is given) or the absolute number (where no change is given).

Land Development Quality Indexmeasures how well the local jurisdictions in a county have avoided the development of High Quality Farmland (HQF) by taking advantage of the available options for encouraging development of lower productivity land. It is the ratio of the percentage of development during 1990-2000 that occurred on HQF to the percentage of all land in the county mapped by FMMP that is HQF. The latter excudes undevelopable areas such as deserts and mountains. An LDQI greater than 1.0 indicates that the county is not taking full advantage of its alternatives.

Vehicle Miles Traveled Per Household is closely correlated with efficient land use patterns that minimize auto trips between home, work, schools and shopping (as well as with levels of air pollution). [Click here for more information]

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