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Carolyn Phinney, center, a research psychologist and community organizer, works with students from New Leaf, a sustainable collaborative in Martinez, on a area of land on Central Sanitary District land proposed to be a sustainable farm on about 25 acres of land owned by the district in Martinez, Calif., on Tuesday Dec. 11, 2012. The Earth Island Institute has agreed to take on the project under its nonprofit umbrella. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff Archives)

Vacant land on the north side of Highway 4 near Buchanan Field Airport could go green with farm vegetables and soccer fields thanks to a Central Costa County Sanitary District board vote to further investigate the plans.

A unanimous vote at a Jan. 24 meeting approved Tad Palecki's motion directing the staff to study plans to lease 33 acres of property for a sustainable farm, six fields for the Pleasant Hill Martinez Soccer Association, and to consider other offers that may come forward.

That parcel is part of 91 acres of sanitary district-owned "buffer land" surrounding the sewer treatment plant and three-story administrative offices on Imhoff Drive in Martinez, confirmed Russell Leavitt, CCCSD environmental coordinator.

Based on months of study, a CCCSD staff report found the farm a suitable land use, but California Environmental Quality Act requirements, Airport Land Use Commission approval and a county use permit or zone change from heavy industrial to agriculture will take more work.

A "conceptual endorsement" on the farm was up for a vote, but during the discussion, Frank Gorham, the soccer association field coordinator, reminded the board that PHMSA had made a written proposal to use six of the 33 acres for youth soccer fields, and said that PHMSA could share the property with the farm.

Board chairman James Nejedly noted the site had been used for clean landfill, and later added that CCCSD had made upward of $1 million on the "dirt lot," accepting and providing clean fill with County Quarry monitoring it and sharing in the proceeds.


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Board member David Williams said he was surprised to learn that the staff had not been tracking the cost of researching the feasibility of the farm, and was concerned about liability and the legality of giving free land and water to a nonprofit.

Board attorney Kent Alm told board members it was legal to rent the use of the land at a below-market rate, as long as the uses were in keeping with the CCCSD charter.

Williams and others balked at the endorsement, which they said could preclude others from making proposals, and his motion to issue an official request for proposals, allowing two weeks for a response, failed to pass.

The board also rejected Michael McGill's motion to endorse the farm despite McGill's insistence that the farm use would not be free.

Both proposals could bring in income to offset district costs, benefit the community and showcase recycled water uses, according to Leavitz.

The final, unanimous vote for approval included board member Paul Causey's suggestion to track the future estimated $10,000 to $15,000 study costs and Nejedly's suggestion to incorporate those costs in a lease.

Board members expressed the conviction that the farm and field proposals could be compatible with each other and consistent with CCCSD's purpose and goals.

Carolyn Phinney submitted the sustainable farm plan. Phinney, a research psychologist and community organizer, has been working on the farm idea for more than two years after learning the district was discarding 40 to 50 million gallons of usable water into the bay on a dry day, and more when it is wet.

That water is excess production that is not deliverable to potential users because of limited pipeline capacity, said Leavitz. CCCSD is about to extend recycled water pipelines to send some of that excess to potential users in Concord.

The Earth Island Institute in Berkeley has agreed to provide the nonprofit umbrella for the farm project.

Phinney hopes to sustainably grow organic produce locally, teach green farm skills and provide food to public school lunch and food bank programs and sell produce on-site to the public.

Local nonprofits and agencies like the idea, and it coincides with Mt. Diablo Unified School District efforts to upgrade student health through better food choices.

The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano could replace San Joaquin Valley-based produce purchases with locally grown greens, and farm plans dovetail with nonprofit Wellness City Challenge diet and fitness education.

Individual group purposes need not be identical to be aligned.

"Cindy Gershen's Wellness City Challenge is about fighting obesity. The farm is about nutritional poverty. Kids at school experience nutritional poverty," Phinney said. "It costs a dollar more to serve kids salad than it does to serve them pizza ... A salad a day keeps the doctor away."

In Martinez, Vicente Martinez High School "New Leaf" students visited the site and hope to be among youth and community volunteer workers who could learn green job skills and contribute to the community via the farm.

Below market rate publicly held land and water, volunteer and low-cost labor and no transportation costs are the elements of a farm business model that can provide some free or low-cost produce to schools and nonprofits. A portion of the produce would be sold to the public at market rate.

Phinney believes the farm will be able to produce enough income to pay for the land, operation and management expenses.

"That location has visibility and access for people to come and work on a community plot or come for lessons. A landscaper has asked for a demonstration plot," Phinney said.

The farm could be a prototype for the use of vacant government properties throughout the state and nation, Phinney said. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson sent a letter of support of the sustainable farm concept.

The 30-year old PHMSA soccer field's plan is not so grand, but it would greatly enhance the league's ability to bring soccer to approximately 2,200 local children ages 4-18 in an after-school program that is 100 percent volunteer-based and affiliated with the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO).

It is a huge challenge to assemble enough available playing fields for the kid's after-school program and it is tough on parents transporting kids to sites scattered from Clayton to Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill and Martinez, said Gorham.

Fields on CCCSD land would be maintained by PHMSA using recycled water. Having the fields in one location also facilitates carpooling to cut traffic and carbon emissions.

Contact Dana Guzzetti at dguzzetti10@gmail.com or call 925-202-9292.