A years-long effort to broaden McFarland’s tax base and revive its economy took a big step forward with the city’s annexation on Wednesday of 2,138½ acres of surrounding farmland – just more than enough to double its physical size while incorporating key frontage to the east and west of Highway 99.
Supported without exception by the owners of the affected property, the approval by a 6-1 vote of the local Kern County agency training commission raises hopes that developers will move forward with projects commercial, residential and possibly industrial within McFarland’s expanded borders. The resulting tax payments would help fund public services in a town of about 16,000 that has struggled financially in recent years.
The annexation and the significant zoning changes it entailed overcame fears that commercial development would come at the expense of agricultural conservation. Kern LAFCO’s managing director recommended including 59% less land, or just 882½ acres, in a deal that changes jurisdiction but not ownership.
Commissioner Liz Morris was initially skeptical because the annexation involved “a lot” of farmland. But she believes the property will remain for agricultural use until it is developed, in which case it will help fund better services for McFarland residents.
“I think it’s a good way for them to try to get people interested in building there and sort of solve some of the issues that they’re facing,” said Morris, who is also an adviser. municipal in the nearby town of Delano. “I’m crossing my fingers that it happens.”
County Supervisor David Couch, whose 4th District includes McFarland, said cities needed to broaden their tax bases to succeed, and McFarland couldn’t because its old boundaries were mostly built up.
Couch said the developers have been waiting for the annexation to happen for “some time”. He expects private industry to step in soon with new restaurants, large equipment and manufacturing companies.
“A lot of hurdles that a developer or a company has to overcome have been resolved, and now it’s up to the private sector to look at what’s out there and see if it makes sense for them,” he said.
McFarland has had its share of municipal challenges in recent years, from changes in city managers and high staff turnover to a financial squeeze that forced the city to consider turning a public library into a police station.
But the city has also recently seen new housing development and a biofuels proposal that would bury carbon from waste and produce an alternative to diesel fuel. The annexation is seen as encouraging this type of investment, as well as new businesses along Highway 99, such as a new truck stop, fast food restaurants and other employers.
The land in question was previously off-limits to all but agricultural use; it mainly contains almond orchards. Zoning approved Wednesday changes it to allow general industry east of Highway 99 and north of Whisler Road, then light industrial north of Hanawalt Avenue and further commercial and residential zoning north from Taylor Avenue to Sherwood Avenue.
Land on the west side of 99 can now be developed into a commercial or mixed-use freeway, between Whisler and North Hanawalt, with property west of Price Street to Garzoli Avenue cleared for residential.
LAFCO chief executive Blair Knox noted that extending the city boundary south to Whisler was key because the road overpass makes it a good location for a truck stop, even for the value-added agriculture. But despite expressions of interest from various parties, he said there was still no firm proposal to build on the annexed land.
When the state legislature authorized local determinations on annexations, Knox said, it demanded that they “try to strike a balance” between values such as municipal health and agricultural conservation. His preference, he added, had been to let McFarland return to the commission as firm development proposals came forward.
“It doesn’t seem like the right time,” he said.
City Manager Kenny Williams, who is also the police chief, said the idea was to raise money to help fund better services for residents of McFarland, and the annexation “is definitely going to help.”
“You can’t see me,” Williams said over the phone, “but we’re smiling.”
The next step is to attract commercial development along the highway, including reaching out to franchisees, he said.
“The door is open,” Williams said.