Monday, September 28, 2009

Save(d) Rural Yolo County

Last October, when I was driving along CA-16 west of Woodland, I came across this sign. (2009, Carla Phillips, posted with owner’s permission). This August, when making the same drive, I noticed the sign was gone. Rural Yolo County had been saved. But from what? And how? It’s a story worth telling, especially to those who rarely venture far from I-80.

On September 9th, 2008, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors in a 3-1-1 vote, approved a site in Madison, a community of about 300 at the junction of I-505 and CA-16, for placement of a re-entry facility (jump to 1:32:15). According to California Assembly Bill 900 passed by the 2007 state legislature, reentry facilities:

….provide a mechanism to provide [soon-to-be released prisoners] life skills, job-seeking, and medical, mental health and addiction treatment, etc. prior to release.

In exchange for the land for the reentry facility, the state would give the county $30 million for the renovation of the Yolo County Jail in Woodland, CA. The county contended in its press release about the deal that the county jail was sorely overcrowded and the reentry facility could create local jobs.

Informational meetings before the vote had shown there was strong public sentiment against the proposed location of the reentry facility. Supervisors heard much of the usual NIMBY sentiment that would go along with the construction of any large, undesirable facility. However, some of the arguments against the facility are unique to a rural, California community: the prison would sit on land used by alfalfa farmers; the prison would be situation right next to a day care center run for the migrant workers; the prison, designed to release inmates, would lure development into the area to provide jobs, housing, and retail to the recently paroled.

After the vote, opponents of the prison created the grassroots (appropriate for trying to save an alfalfa field) group Save Rural Yolo County. The group turned out quite an impressive coalition. Community figures from Madison and Esparato were joined with concerned citizens of Davis and Woodland, the Wintum Indians (located around Tancred), and the California Farm Bureau Federation. Over the next few months, Save Rural Yolo’s members engaged in about every and any grassroots activity under the Central Valley sun. They wrote letters to the editor, letters the state representation, letters to senators, and letters to the Office of the Inspector General. They testified at every official hearing about the prison. They retained counsel and filed two separate lawsuits in Yolo Superior Court in October, alleging that the county violated state law by performing an environmental review before entering in the contract to give the land to the state and violated its own planning ordinances that protect rural farmland. And of course, they put up the signs all around the county, like the one that first caught my attention.

At their May 5, 2009 meeting, the Yolo County supervisors voted unanimously not to go ahead with construction of the facility. Many reasons were given for scrapping the plans: the budget crisis put the $30 million grant from the state in doubt; the Madison site raised flood control issues; Madison wasn’t big enough to support the facility or in influx of residents. A supervisor explicitly denied that the efforts of Save Rural Yolo County influenced the decision, but given the similarities between the reasoning of the Board and the complaints of the residents, one has to wonder. Whatever the case, there will be a no new prison in Madison. After the vote was taken, members of Save Rural Yolo County cheered out loud.

The Save Rural Yolo movement provides a nice foil for a grassroots movement of sorts which followed shortly thereafter: the health care town hall protests. Given the disregard for civility that defined the meetings and made for oh-so-entertaining Youtube clips all summer, it’s not surprising that much of the media coverage of these events was negative. There was the lingering accusation that the people who were speaking out simply didn’t know the facts, especially the angrier, more rural town hall goers. Any discussions of elitism versus ruralism are way too long for this post and for the most part over my head. However, at a time when all grassroots organizations are accused of being “astroturf,” and a political movement by mostly white, mostly poor, mostly country people might be viewed with suspicion, I like to think the Save Rural Yolo story is a good one to recount.


Yooli said...

Fantastic post Ollie! I think its an interesting way to juxtapose the rural stereotype that people in rural areas are more isolated or culturally cut-off. It seems to me that a coalition of farmers and rural residents taking on their local government and the state seems anything but isolated and closed off. It almost seems progressive!

Its interesting to me that a place like Davis can fight the development of a Target for years and it comes off relatively positive in the media. Davis residents are "anti-sprawl," progressive or actively involved in their community. But make it about a rural area, an alfalfa field and a prison and suddenly the coverage is negative. The rural residents of Yolo County, whether you agree with their point of view or not, absolutely have a right to fight for the type of community they want. Perhaps I'm one of those "any participation is good participation" people, but I think even if there is a "wrong" opinion being espoused, its by butting heads we often move forward.

Maybe Madison and the surrounding areas DO need more development and jobs. Maybe there DOES need to be a better revenue source to help support the infrastructure in Yolo County. But its only by engaging all the stakeholders that a community can make an informed long-term decision. It took Davis forever to get this new Target, but its only after years and years of people weighing in that we're now getting one - and with more or less grudging acceptance by most residents. In the same way, rural Yolo County residents should be able to debate and wrestle with their local issues before moving forward with a plan that will work for them. Whatever your opinions on the Save Rural Yolo County campaign, its heartening to know people are concerned, engaged, and savvy enough about the issues to fight for what's important to them.

Melissa J said...

Two corrections:
*The $30,000,000 was not a gift from the state of CA, it was a loan. The people of Yolo County would pay it back to the state with interest.
*The first lawsuit was filed by The California Farm Bureau and the second lawsuit was filed by Save Rural Yolo County.

Thank you for your blog.

Melissa Jordan, Esparto

LT said...

Great post! This is a great challenge to the stereotype of rural farmers as unsophisticated, disenfranchised, and helpless. Though I'm more inclined to believe that the Yolo County Supervisors' ultimate vote had more to do with the uncertainty of the monetary gift/loan (call me cynical, I guess) than the farmers' Save Rural Yolo County campaign, it was an impressive one nonetheless.

Adam W said...

A few things:
1. Great post!
2. The CA Farm Bureau was definitely involved in this litigation from the outset.
3. An interesting factor in the Board of Supervisor's eventual decision to stop the prison was first identified by local folks, who raised the point that the site chosen for the prison/re-entry facility was particularly unsuitable for a large building due to drainage issues. Local knowledge saves the day!