The Highest and Best Use
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Bill Hocker | Jan 15, 2015

Many articles about Napa's Ag Preserve proclaim its intent to set agriculture as the "highest and best use" that land can be put to in Napa county. The expression is not in the current, 2008, Napa County General Plan, or in the WDO, but is used in the county's "right to farm" ordinance and in section 66451.22(2) of the California Government Code:
(Of interest is that the highest and best use of land as agriculture is seen as a tourist attraction!)

In Wikipedia and on the Napa County Assessor's page, "highest and best use" is a legal and real-estate term meaning the best possible use of the land to achieve the highest assessed or most profitable value. "Possible" is the critical word here because external factors define what is possible. Zoning laws may make a more profitable use impossible, and in this definition agriculture may be zoned to be the highest and best use, i.e. most valuable use, allowed. In Napa County, however, since all ag zoned properties may be occupied by residences it is quite possible that in many cases estate homes are the "highest and best use" of the land allowed under the General Plan. Ag zoned lands also allow for the production and marketing of wine, both of which may become the "highest and best use" displacing the crops normally thought of as agriculture. For agriculture to be in reality the "highest and best use", uses other than crop production would have to be prohibited.

It is easy to appropriate "highest and best use" in a philosophical sense to mean, in essence, the most "noble" use of the land. Many would say that preserving wilderness for future generations to know is the "highest and best use" of the land and that all other more profitable uses are an unfortunate and unavoidable accommodation to our necessity for food and shelter. And I tend to agree with the sentiment. But that moral meaning is not really what the expression is intended to mean. For wilderness to be the highest and best use of the land, it would have to be zoned as such, though eminent domain for private land I assume.

Growing things is a very unprofitable way to use land in an urbanized region like the bay area even at the astronomical price of Napa grapes. It was inevitable that developers would seek the highest and best use of the land possible other than growing crops. And they have found it wineries and trophy homes. These uses are allowed on AP and AWOS land and they are often more profitable than the potential crops that they replace. The many winery-event centers now in the pipeline are indicative of that quest for the highest and best use.

It is time to look again at agriculture as the highest and best use of the land in the way it is often seen by proponents of the ag preserve and as it seems intended in the California Code. Not as home sites, not as winery event centers, but as land on which crops are grown. Agriculture is conflated in the zoning designations of the general plan with housing and wine production and marketing which in many situations have now, in fact, become the highest and best use of the land. Without changes to the zoning, to a more restrictive definition of agriculture, the highest and best use will continue to move toward more tourism, more housing estates and to a cascade of further suburban development. It is time to put agriculture as the highest and best use into the General Plan and to mean it.

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