Business

Follow-Up File: Paso adds notches to its purple belt

Name: Ron Whisenand

Job: Community development director

Organization: City of Paso Robles

What they said then: In January 2008, The Tribune reported that a 150-acre agricultural easement dedicated by Turley Wine Cellars was the first step toward creating a “purple belt” around Paso Robles.

The phrase is a play on the term “greenbelt,” traditionally used to describe conservation easements — purple is for red wine grapes that have proliferated around the city in recent decades.

“The city is excited about the conservation easement because success of the Purple Belt Program is dependent on voluntary efforts of property owners and agriculturalists and their desire to maintain the land in viable agricultural production,” said Ron Whisenand, Paso’s community development director.

The Turley deal, brokered by the Land Conservancy, restricts future development in perpetuity, assuring that it will remain in agricultural production even if it changes ownership due to sale or death.

Paso’s Purple Belt Action Plan was born in its 2003 General Plan, which included a list of ways to encourage agriculture around the city limits.

What they say now: Paso Robles finalized the plan in late 2009, including identifying priority areas for future easements. A complete copy is available at www.prcity.com.

Since most of the land is under county jurisdiction, on Feb. 2 the Paso Robles City Council adopted a memorandum to solicit support from the county Board of Supervisors.

That memo could be heard by county supervisors in April, said Chuck Stevenson, county long-range planning manager.

“It’s something we’re supportive of,” Stevenson said. “I don’t see any problem with the board supporting it.”

It would lead to closer coordination between the city and county on North County conservation efforts, such as outreach with land owners in priority areas.

Winery owner Larry Turley heard about purple-belt efforts in Napa Valley, prompting him to pursue easements on his properties in St. Helena and Templeton.

If grants are available, the city or county might purchase land to protect it from development, Whisenand said. But with current budget projections, that option appears far down the road.

“We’re going to be looking for the ones that don’t cost a lot of money early on,” Whisenand said. “Keeping that permanent agricultural easement is an important tool.”

But it’s not the only tool, he emphasizes. The city also supports agricultural marketing and new businesses — such as a custom crush facility to process grapes grown locally — that keep income associated with wine production local.

Another tool, said Stevenson, is a proposed program to transfer development credits from parcels in the purple belt to developers who want to build a few more units than currently permitted on parcels in the city limits. Owners in ag areas would be financially compensated for giving up rights to develop.

Development restrictions on easements result in a loss of property value, so owners are compensated through income and estate tax benefits, said Bob Hill, executive director of the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County.

In Turley’s case, the tax savings is going into an educational fund for employees and their children, said Malani Anderson, tasting room manager for Turley Wine Cellars.

But declaring the easement took time, said Larry Turley’s assistant, Lynn Stiefeling.

“It’s a very long process,” she said. “It took us a good six months.”

Whisenand hopes the city’s efforts will help others navigate the course more quickly and smoothly.

Despite its name, the Purple Belt plan isn’t aimed just at vineyard, although the wine industry alone brings more than $1 billion to the county.

“We’re seeing renewed interest in lavender as a product,” Whisenand added. “And we’re seeing a lot more olives being planted.”

— Raven J. Railey

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