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[whitespace] Farmer's Friend: Zak Mousli, longtime director of the Bay Area Research and Extension Center, thinks the University of California is making a big mistake in giving the 17-acre agricultural-research facility back to the state.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Dirty Deal

In what some call a 'backroom deal,' the University of California is giving a 17-acre plot of agricultural land back to the state in exchange for more cash

By Traci Hukill

WHEN ZAK MOUSLI lifts a strip of burlap covering a long composting bed at the Bay Area Research and Extension Center, the difference between farm folk and other people becomes clear as the sunny blue sky. Only an ag man could love the chunks of half-decayed vegetables, flies hovering above it like a cloud, its compost aroma complex with gilding notes of decay.

"There aren't usually this many flies," murmurs Mousli, who holds a Ph.D. in soil science and directs the University of California-operated station. Undaunted, he waves the flies away and plunges one fist into the dark, moist soil, bringing up a clod of damp earth alive with wiggling worms. "This is very good soil," he says earnestly.

Mousli is an academic's farmer, a big man in spotless denim and cologne who frequently consults his cell phone. He strolls around the 17-acre field, pointing out various research plots textured in grass or rows of trellised shrubs: Here's a turf experiment to see which grasses can tolerate low moisture; there's a project to find an alternative to methyl bromide that will work on strawberries; and there's an experiment on growing blueberries. What most people think of as an aberrant patch of soil near the congested quadrant of Stevens Creek and Winchester boulevards is what agricultural researchers use as a proving ground for plants' suitability to the "interior coastal climate." If it can grow at BAREC, it can flourish in the Bay Area.

Providing space for experiments is most of BAREC's job, but the station also plays an important role in the Cooperative Extension program. It's a point from which to disseminate information, the pipeline through which academic research is delivered to the horticultural community.

Standing in the middle of BAREC's expansive fields, it's easy to forget that Valley Fair looms one block over across Winchester Boulevard and that the soon-to-be-renovated Town and Country development is across Stevens Creek Boulevard from that. Christened the "Deciduous Fruit Field Station" in 1952, the year the university started using it for agricultural research, BAREC has kept pace with the changes to the once orchard-carpeted land that surrounds it. Now the station's specialty, appropriately, is urban gardening--agriculture on a small scale in crowded places.

But BAREC's days are numbered. Included (some say buried) in the 1999-2000 budget was a provision establishing a quid pro quo arrangement: If the university released the land back to the state, which was the original owner of the property, then it would receive $2 million more per year for its needy Cooperative Extension program.

Once the details of the provision became public, letters from concerned neighbors and gardeners started pouring into UC's Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. At its September meeting, the Board of Regents decided to grant the agricultural station a stay of execution. Santa Clara held a town meeting on the matter, and local legislators met with university officials again in February to discuss alternatives. Then, on March 15, the regents voted to reconvey BAREC, valued between $20 million and $40 million, to the state.

Their decision has made a lot of people very unhappy.

ANGELA D'ORFANI LIVES in the neighborhood that surrounds BAREC. She spearheaded an effort to save the station by organizing a letter-writing campaign and posting signs around the property. Since the possible sale of BAREC was announced, she and her neighbors have fearfully entertained visions of a high-density housing development in the fields where strawberries and apple trees now grow.

"My concerns are that there would be an increased flow of traffic on my street," D'Orfani says. "The congestion we already see in the Stevens Creek area would be growing. And the neighbors whose backyards are on BAREC enjoy the open space. They're not wanting to see two- and three-story condos going in back there."

The neighbors needn't pack up just yet. Before the state can sell the land to anyone, housing developer or park planner, it has to offer the parcel to state and local government agencies first. If no agency wants it, then the land gets declared "surplus" and can be sold. In that case, the city of Santa Clara would have the final say over what could go in because of its zoning authority.

Santa Clara City Manager Jennifer Sparacino declines to speculate on how the City Council might choose to zone the parcel. But state Sen. John Vasconcellos thinks D'Orfani and her neighbors might be spared the worst-case scenario, thanks to a "pretty neighborhood-oriented" council.

"The ideal would be if the state sold it to the city for a park," he says, adding that the passage of Proposition 12 makes available more money to fund such projects.

Vasconcellos is determined to make sure the neighbors' concerns are well represented. But he also has his own beef with the state Finance Department and UC over what he calls the "backroom deal" they struck regarding BAREC. Neither he nor Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist was alerted, as they believe they should have been, to the fact that a significant property within their jurisdictions was going to be altered by the state's budget. No one contacted him prior to legislative approval, Vasconcellos says, and his own staff members did not catch the item while perusing the enormous document, in part because the language was vague. In the budget, the property is identified only as "land in Santa Clara County currently used for cooperative extension" instead of by its common name, BAREC. By the time Vasconcellos found out about it, it was too late and the budget had been signed.

"I really resent the surreptitious B.S. from the administration and the university both," Vasconcellos says. "They left us no capacity to challenge it until it was already done."

Rand Martin, Vasconcellos's chief of staff, says, "At best, it was a rude oversight. At worst, it was a malicious attempt to keep the senators and the assemblywoman in the dark. But who's going to know?"

The reconveyance is a done deal. But the process to declare the property surplus--which must meet with legislative approval--won't go so easily, promises Vasconcellos, who plans to make sure the neighbors' concerns are heard.

"This time, we'll be ready for it."

BRACEY TIEDE IS A MASTER gardener with Cooperative Extension. In her opinion, the agricultural station is invaluable. It not only contributes tangible goods to the community--it gave more than 3,000 pounds of apples from its orchard to Second Harvest Food Bank last year--but also fosters ecologically sound ideas.

"It is one of the few research stations that does a lot of studies that benefit urban areas," she says. "Like right now there's a study of testing a certain technique of watering native oak trees so they can be used as street trees. That's good because oak trees provide habitat to things that are endemic to the area, instead of bringing in outside species that have no natural predators."

Of the university's 10 research centers, only BAREC and the South Coast facility in Irvine conduct studies in urban agriculture. BAREC is unique in another way: It's by far the smallest of the centers. Most facilities are several hundred acres; the largest, the Sierra Foothill facility, is 5,700.

According to UC Vice President W.R. Gomes, who heads the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, BAREC's size makes it the obvious candidate for liquidation. "There was a question about whether the center, as small as it is, could continue to provide real research," he says. The university plans to relocate the experiments currently underway to other facilities.

Gomes points out that the university's cooperative extension budget was cut in the early '90s. New guidelines for UC's agriculture division emphasize the importance of rebuilding the cooperative extension program. Besides, he says, BAREC has never been UC's to sell.

"I agree that if UC had rights to the value of the land, to give it up would be something to consider," he says. "But the land was in our hands solely for the purpose of agricultural research."

UC regent and San Jose attorney Stephen Nakashima has criticized the plan to revert BAREC to the state from the beginning. He thinks the university sold out cheap. It could have used BAREC's value as leverage, he says, to build a much larger research station in a more practical part of the county--down south, near the border of Monterey County, where agriculture is crucial to the economy. Instead, he says, the university let the opportunity slip.

"Our budgets are in the billions of dollars," Nakashima scoffs. "Two million dollars is nothing. I think we could have gotten a lot more money for it. I own the property on which my office is located [on Winchester Boulevard]. I know it very well. I sold some property for about $85 a square foot, which is kind of unheard of. That's why I know how valuable that land is."

Still another concern of Nakashima's is that the $2 million earmarked for cooperative extension will be subject to change by future administrations. There's no insurance that the state's end of the agreement will be honored in later years. "They're supposed to [honor it]," he says. "But how can you know? Ten years from now, you don't know."

In the meantime, local gardeners, county officials and representatives, including Vasconcellos, are hoping that a south county research station will become a reality. W.R. Gomes himself is quick to assure that he's more than happy to work toward that goal.

"What I'm doing is working with people in the university and people in the Monterey and south Santa Clara [County] areas to see what we can put together," he says. "No promises, but I would like very much to have a center there. I think it would be appropriate."

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From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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