Willie Benedetti doesn’t mince words. The 68-year-old California producer wants to retire, but claims he’s being forced to farm: “What kind of law forces a man to keep farming? There are understandable regulations and then there is BS.”
Benedetti lives on 267 acres beside some of the most scenic agricultural countryside in California. Encircled by the picturesque hills and fields of Marin County, Benedetti argues he is also surrounded by onerous regulations. Pared down, Benedetti believes he is within his rights to retire and build a house for his son, who doesn’t work in agriculture, within the 267-acre farming operation. Marin County officials believe otherwise.
Marin County finalized a Land Use Plan (LUP) on May 16, 2017, green-lighted by the California Coastal Commission (CCC). The LUP requires any landowner applying for a building permit to cede several easements to the county, including an agreement not to subdivide land, and an assurance that a given landowner will remain “actively and directly engaged in agricultural use of the property.”
What constitutes active farming? Where is the bar on commercial agriculture? “These supervisors must be hallucinating,” Benedetti says. “My nearest neighbor is five miles away. Who in the hell is the house going to bother? I’m talking about a little house for my son and grandkids out here beside me.”
Benedetti bought the 267 acres in 1972 and became a free-range bird pioneer, establishing Willie Bird Turkeys and a reputation for premium quality that stretches coast-to-coast. Forty-six years later, Benedetti is ready to step away from commercial agriculture and tighten family bonds. “It’s crazy because if I build the house, the county will literally never see it or even know it’s here,” Benedetti explains.
On July 14, 2017, Benedetti, represented pro bono by attorney Jeremy Talcott and the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), filed suit against the CCC. (Citing pending litigation, CCC declined comment for this story.) Talcott says officials are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Benedetti’s area of Marin County has only seen the construction of roughly a dozen houses in the last 50 years, according to Talcott: “This is already a family farming area and current zoning laws already are in place to make sure it doesn’t become a boutique getaway for the Hollywood crowd. Instead, these restrictions hurt the very people, like Willie Benedetti, they’re supposed to protect.”
“These new regulations restrict a person’s liberty to choose when and how to work. This could be a heavy, unjust burden,” Talcott continues. “The county could force a farmer to work their land and that’s supposed to be constitutional? Taken to its logical conclusion, this situation is horrifying.”
The intent of the regulation is to increase agricultural sustainability in Marin County, according to Dennis Rodoni, board supervisor for District 4. Essentially, the regulation allows “actively engaged” farmers to build three houses, instead of one, he says: “Our ranching and agricultural communities have been asking for this change in the Coastal Plan for a long time. Mr. Benedetti doesn’t agree, but we think things are much better. With this new amendment, a farmer can build two additional houses.”
“The intent of this regulation isn’t to force older farmers to move away. We want them to stay and have housing for children. Actively engaged in agriculture is the definition, but even senior farmers are still engaged in farming in some way. They never totally quit,” he explains.
“This is about allowing the ag community to build extra housing to continue farming. Many children of farmers want to move back to the farm, but they can’t. We’re addressing the issue with this plan,” Rodoni adds.
In agreement with California’s attorney general, both parties have agreed to temporarily stay the case. “We’re hopeful the county will reconsider. Otherwise we’ll file for summary judgement,” Talcott adds. “Farmers across the country need to be aware of potential county restrictions and stay vigilant because sometimes there is a short statute of limitations.”
Benedetti remains frustrated, knowing his situation won’t change whether he owns 267 acres or 20,000 acres. The letter of the law expressed as “actively and directly engaged” in farming leaves Benedetti in limbo between retirement and a house for his son. “I’m not talking about a mansion, just a regular, little house,” Benedetti says. “What kind of land rights are these? Look me in the eye and tell me it’s not crazy.”
“This is ludicrous and regular Americans know it,” he concludes. “If I retire from farming, I can’t build a house on my own land?”