Valley Ford turkey king sues Marin County, Coastal Commission over ‘forced farming’ law

Free-range turkey pioneer Willie Benedetti doesn’t want to work forever.

Instead of raising fat birds for Thanksgiving tables, the 68-year-old farmer hopes someday to be playing with grandchildren in a house he’d like to build for one of his sons on his 267-acre ranch near Valley Ford.

But he said that’s not possible because of a new Marin County law meant to preserve agricultural lands that would force him to keep farming if he constructs the new dwelling.

Now, he’s teaming up with a conservative legal action group that wages high-profile property rights cases, challenging the mandate in a lawsuit against the county and the California Coastal Commission, accusing them of coercion and violating his constitutional rights.

“What they are doing is not right,” said the owner of nationally known Willie Bird Turkeys, whose family has owned the land near the Estero Americano just south of the Sonoma County line since 1972. “To put pressure on the farming community. It’s ludicrous.”

The stakes could be high for many of the estimated 200 landowners in the coastal zone. A victory for Benedetti and the Pacific Legal Foundation would have broader implications on state and local government’s authority to set such strict rules for development.

“If he got a court to say local land use restrictions and basic tools like zoning are an unconstitutional deprivation of property rights, all bets would be off to maintain any type of consistent character in communities,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

However, the ability to do just that is “battle-tested in the courts” and is not likely to go away, said Huffman, a former environmental attorney whose district runs from Marin County up the coast to Oregon.

“If someone wants to re-litigate it and try again I’m fairly confident about the outcome,” he said.

County officials said they had no intention of depriving anyone’s rights by adopting the special zoning rule, which has been approved by the Coastal Commission.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, whose district includes much of west Marin, said the goal was to encourage multi-generational farming by allowing up to three houses be built for relatives per 60 acres. Before, owners were limited to one house.

Rodoni said the deal hinged on families agreeing not to subdivide land and remain in ranching, preserving a tradition in the rolling green hills beside the Pacific Ocean indefinitely.

“We visited Willie and thought we showed him he would be better off for it,” Rodoni said. “Obviously, he doesn’t feel that way.”

Brian Case, a deputy county counsel, said his office has received the lawsuit and will “review the arguments and issues that it raises.”

The dispute in the bucolic corner of the North Bay is the latest in a seeming tug-of-war between the government, land conservation advocates and ag interests.

Environmental groups recently succeeded in halting renewal of long-term leases to cattle ranchers in the Point Reyes National Seashore in a settlement of a lawsuit against the National Park Service. Instead of 20-year leases, two dozen families who’ve grazed cattle in the park for several generations will be limited to five-year extensions while the park service studies impacts of grazing.

Also, three years ago, Drakes Bay Oyster Co. was forced to close after then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declined to renew its permit, a move also supported by environmentalists.

Advocates in favor of the new policy say maintaining the area’s rural character hinges on preserving working landscapes.

“If you want Marin County to be wall-to-wall houses, that’s one thing,” said Phyllis Faber, co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and supporter of the county’s policy. “But if you want to keep the county as it has been over the years, farming is very important to support.”

The county’s Local Coastal Plan - dubbed a “forced-farming mandate” by opponents - was created after eight years of planning and public hearings. Many farmers and dairy ranchers asked to be allowed to build additional family housing, said Mary Shallenberger, who served on the Coastal Commission for 13 years before leaving earlier this month.

Officials listened, Shallenberger said, and the result was a fair and unique policy intended to keep farmers in business.

“There is no other Local Coastal Plan in the state with this exemption for second houses because the whole idea is that ag land not be developed,” Shallenberger said.

Benedetti,who no longer breeds turkeys on the Valley Ford property but is leasing it to poultry farmers, said it threatens his ability to retire and hand over control of his business.

His lawsuit, filed two weeks ago in Marin County Superior Court, alleges he’s being deprived of his property rights. His lawyer, Jeremy Talcott of the Pacific Legal Foundation - the same group that supported Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in its prolonged legal battle - is asking a judge to invalidate the law or to order the county to remove the farming provision.

Talcott said up to 200 landowners are in the coastal zone, many of whom would fall under the requirements.

“In many ways what Marin is trying to do is preserve the ranching heritage,” Talcott said. “It’s just the way they’ve gone about doing it is placing a severe burden on the farmers and ranchers they are purporting to help.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312.

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