Farming conservation easement eyed for 417 acres

By Dennis Wyatt

209 Business Journal file photo
The 417 acres the City of Manteca owns on Hays Road near McMullin Road south of Manteca could be placed in an agricultural conservation easement for perpetuity

Land the City of Manteca initially bought as a way to start development of municipal property where a 500-room hotel and indoor water park along with an adjoining family entertainment zone may be built could become part of an agricultural conservation easement.

The San Joaquin County Council of Governments is seeking to purchase easements on 417 acres the city owns at 23000 Hays Road in rural South Manteca for a price not exceeding $5,000 an acre or $2,085,000.

By buying an agricultural easement with fees developers pay for such a purpose, the land will be restricted to farming in perpetuity. The use restriction would be recorded on the deed and would apply to any future buyers of the property.

Manteca bought the land near the San Joaquin River over a mile west of the T-intersection of Airport Way and West Ripon Road in 2010 using fees collected on sewer connections. The city purchased it for $3.4 million or $7,529 an acre.

While that may seem like a money losing deal at first glance, it is far from it. The city has been leasing the land to farmers for a little more than $100,000 a year. Should be easement sale go through, Manteca will have received $2.8 million from the deal by the end of the year. But by retaining ownership, the city will recoup its initial investment based on future lease payments by farmers by 2024.

Not only does it mean a positive cash flow in the future but it keeps the door open for possible use of the property to dispose of treated wastewater from the Manteca treatment plant if it is needed during a future expansion of the facility.

The just completed $8 million infrastructure work that placed a new gravity flow sewer main beneath the 120 Bypass east of Costco as well as made it possible to develop an indoor water park and family entertainment zone on roughly 200 acres of city-owned land south of the wastewater treatment plant will go into service once a final link along Woodward Avenue is completed by developers.

The wastewater that is now being pumped from as far to the east as the Woodward Park area will then flow by gravity to the treatment plant. The sewer line in place now would be cleaned and repurposed as a gravity flow line for delivering treated wastewater south of the 120 Bypass to irrigate existing and future parks.

Given the line is already on the other side of the 120 Bypass it could extended south to the Hays Road property which was the city’s original intent and used to irrigate the 417 acres as is now done on land at the wastewater treatment plant that a farmers leases to grow corn for conversion into silage to feed dairy cattle.

It also opens the door to possibly sell treated wastewater to farms located along a potential future purple pipeline extension to the Hays Road property.

Much of the treated wastewater Manteca processes each day flows into the San Joaquin River where it is significantly cleaner than river water. The water at that point is up for grabs by others.

A state law makes it legal for municipalities to sell treated wastewater. The City of Stockton has a deal in place than sells treated water it releases into the San Joaquin River to a down river agricultural user.

The city initially moved to buy the property out of growing concerns the state could one day ban returning any treated water to rivers. At the same time the city wanted to convert the land between the 120 Bypass and the treatment plant proper they had purchased for future land disposal of treated wastewater to be repurposed into higher revenue producing property.

Back in 2010 it was estimated the move would increase the value of the land set aside for land disposal where the family entertainment zone is proposed by more than 500 percent over the price originally paid. Any proceeds from the sale of land around the treatment plant for retail or business park purposes would go back to the sewer enterprise account. And since the Hays Road site was purchased using sewer connection fee revenue, the conservation easement payment would flow back into the enterprise account as well.

The city has also toyed with creating its own green waste recycling facility on the Hays Road property that would be an applicable agricultural use.

It was also discussed in 2010 since the city would have land disposal, that Manetas could pursue agricultural processing jobs that are becoming more sophisticated and better paying with various marketing strategies such as salad packaging. Currently the only such operation in Manteca — Eckert’s Cold Storage on Moffat Boulevard that processes pepper for pizzas — sends the water it washes peppers with through a purple pipe to the treatment plant site for land disposal.

Such a food processing strategy would be a sharp departure from the last 40 plus years where the city avoided such operations like the plague since they gobbled up wastewater treatment plant capacity at the expensive of being able to serve homes.

The sale of conservation easements would take one option of the table that was listed in 2010 when the land was purchased. That option entailed possibly creating a mega-regional treatment plant some 50 or so years down the road for Manteca and nearby cities.

The SJCOG will review the conservation easement purchase proposal during two public hearings on Feb. 14 at 9:30 a.m. before the Habitat Technical Advisory Committee and Feb. 22 at 4 p.m. before the full SJCOG board. Both hearings will take place at the SJCOG building at 555 East Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton.