The Trouble With Ranchettes
By Ron Bottorff
Rural ranchette development is spreading across many areas of California, from San Diego to North Coast counties. In the decades ahead, rural sprawl could have very significant impacts on agriculture, water quality, wildlife habitat and ecosystem functions.
Rural residential development consists of homes and other buildings on parcels ranging from 2 to 40 acres. Nationwide, this form of development consumes several tines more land than urban and suburban residential areas. Between 1994 and 1997, for example, 90 percent of the growth in housing acreage in the United States occurred on parcels of one acre or larger and 55 percent on parcels 10 to 22 acres in size.
There have been numerous studies around the nation showing that rural ranchette development does not pay its way in terms of local government income. Sewer line extensions from nearby suburbs may be necessary to avoid groundwater contamination from septic tanks. Additionally, road maintenance in ranchette areas can be an expensive burden on local government. Road upgrades, in turn, encourage more development. Extensive rural development threatens to become a big financial burden on counties in California, and perhaps even on cities that include such development within their boundaries.
Ranchette development has very large impacts on wildlife, its habitat and the functioning of ecosystems. "Human-friendly" bird species displace neotropical migrants. New predators, such as domestic cats and dogs, are introduced. Fences are erected, and non-native plants go in, some of which may be invasive. Even ranchettes at a density of one house per 40 acres will result in major ecological changes over time. Rick Knight, a wildlife conservation professor at Colorado State University, points out that as far as plants and wildlife are concerned, an area with one house per 35 acres might as well be a subdivision.
Major ranchette-type development now looms in Ventura County via the Pinnacles Group development proposal for Adams Canyon, Measure A-7, that was approved by Santa Paula voters on May 8, 2007 (see article this issue). A study of a County General Plan amendment to allow construction of 247 ranchettes on Temescal Ranch near Piru was recently rejected by a 3-2 vote of the County Supervisors. These are ominous developments and will bear careful watching by citizens opposed to rural sprawl.