04 February 2009

Holy Guacamole! Avocados and Christmas Trees in Carbon Canyon?

In the 24 January edition of the Chino Hills Champion, a little snippet in the editorial section noted that retiring Chino Hills City Manager Douglas LaBelle made a suggestion at his last City Council meeting that some of the 3,000 acres of open space in the city might be put to use generating revenue in these troubled and diffcult economic times.

The recommendation? Planting avocado and Christmas tree groves!

Yes, that's right, avocados and firs.

This "recommendation" actually falls right in line when it comes to suspect schemes with my very recent post on that strange novelty, Ski Villa, which, in 1966, had the dubious distinction of being the first (and only) year-round, snow-less ski resort in America.

Now, it'd be nice to think that Mr. LaBelle's offering was made jokingly and one would hope that the council, regardless, would see the forest for the trees (sorry, couldn't resist). We would also want to believe that city planning has evolved slightly in the last 43 years.

It is to the city's credit that so much open space was created in the planning process in the nearly 20 years since Chino Hills was incorporated. Though much of this land is unbuildable or has utility lines above or below ground, or has some other barrier to development, the city should be congratulated for recognizing the importance of open space as an aesthetic feature, as a buffer in nearly unmitigated development through our region, and, in some cases, as recreational land with trails.

At the same time, Mr. LaBelle's comment, whether entirely serious or not, reminds of one crucial issue: general plans, like treaties, are often made to be broken, particularly when times are tough on the financial front.

It is true that there is a historical precedent, since at least the early 20th century, for using steep hilly areas for avocado raising, such as in Hacienda Heights, La Habra Heights, Fallbrook and other southern California locales.

Having said this, almost any agricultural endeavor has its downsides, especially crop failures due to drought and pest infestation, declining demand in shaky markets, and the use of pesticides which affect ground water and streams, to name a few.

Moreover, as we face water shortages in this extended drought (we'll see how much rain comes in the next few days and, more importantly, what happens to the Sierra snowpack in the remainder of the rainy season), it doesn't seem appropriate to talk about dramatically increasing water expropriation for uses that may not bring the desired profit and could take away from existing residential and commercial need.

Additionally, there is the cost of preparing the land, contracting growers, and preparing the products for market.

Besides, isn't the city really better off focusing on the Shoppes and other retail rather than trying to get into the specialty agriculture business?

Is there anyone who lives in or cares about Carbon Canyon who really wants to see Noble firs or avocados on the hillsides to the south of Carbon Canyon Road between Chino Hills Parkway and Old Carbon Canyon Road--the most likely open space area within the Chino Hills portion of the Canyon for such uses? Even cattle, picturesque as they are grazing contentedly on this land now, use a lot of water, produce pollutive methane gas, and contribute to erosion.

Chino Hills has becomes a desirable place largely because of the generally solid planning that draws residents to the city and one of those features is the open space and rural feel that space provides. Any idea of compromising this is a non-starter from the get-go.

Let's hope Mr. LaBelle wasn't serious and that the City Council doesn't give it any more consideration. Finally, and this last point should be on the minds of anyone concerned with how government deals with fiscal and other crises:

Desperation-driven public policy is a poor substitute for (somewhat) rational planning.

Let's hope this was a passing little fit of irrationality and will soon be forgotten!

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