Marin Voice: New county restriction strips farmers of the right to retire
Author: Jeremy Talcott
Publication: Marin Independent Journal After decades of hard work and dedication to traditional farming methods, Willie Benedetti just wants to relax on his beloved Marin County ranch with his kids and grandkids.
His Willie Bird Turkeys are nationally renowned — sold by the tens of thousands every Thanksgiving in grocery stores and Williams Sonoma catalogs. Benedetti’s log cabin overlooks the picturesque Estero Americano, an estuary that flows directly into the Pacific Ocean just a few miles from his home.
As much as Benedetti loves his work, he’s none too happy that a new Marin County ordinance could actually prevent him from ever retiring.
Under the newly adopted Land Use Plan for the agricultural zone, landowners who seek new dwelling permits must be “actively and directly engaged in agricultural use of the property.” If Benedetti builds a new home, he would have to keep working and never retire, or give up ownership of his land.
“I want to be able to build a house for my son, and spend time with my grandkids, but the county is making me choose between those two options,” Benedetti said. “I don’t see why the county thinks they can tell me I have to keep working just because I want to do something that farming families have done for as long as there has been farming: build a home for the next generation.”
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court placed important limits on when government can impose restrictions on discretionary permits. Called the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, it prevents government from abusing the permitting process to coerce people into giving up their constitutional rights.
Now, Pacific Legal Foundation has stepped in to represent Benedetti, free of charge, in challenging the county’s forced farming provision.
Our lawsuit contends that compelling a farmer to keep farming violates the Constitution, taking away the fundamental right to choose if, when, and how one will work.
In the 1984 case of Nash v. City of Santa Monica, the California Supreme Court said that “forc[ing] upon an individual a career chosen by the state would surely raise substantial questions of constitutional dimension.” Requiring Benedetti to promise that he will continue working — or transfer his property to someone who will — raises similar concerns.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also held that if government demands a property right in exchange for a permit, the demand must be closely related and proportional to some impact of the permitted action.
Marin County plans to require from landowners an easement — a valuable property right — to ensure that they stay actively and directly engaged in commercial agriculture. But there’s simply not a close enough connection between building small family dwellings and forcing landowners to be farmers.
Nor is it proportional.
Consider Benedetti’s situation: A dwelling that occupies a few thousand square feet of 267 acres of land is being used to justify a promise that he and all future owners of the lot will be required to farm in perpetuity. And what if agricultural markets suddenly take a dip and it becomes no longer profitable to farm Benedetti’s land? Should he operate at a loss just so local bureaucrats can feel good about forcibly preserving the agricultural character of Marin County?
Willie Benedetti has brought charm and revenue to West Marin for almost 55 years, using traditional farming techniques to raise free-range birds that are lauded for their quality and taste. The Constitution protects his right to kick back and spend time with his family, and Marin County cannot ask him to relinquish his property rights in return.
Jeremy Talcott is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.