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Marin Land Trust Saves Family Farms And Rural Life From Developers' Pressure

HICKS VALLEY (KPIX 5) -- Kitty Dolcini grew up playing in the barns on her family's Red Hill Ranch in Hicks Valley, northwest of Novato. But her generation -- the fifth in her family to farm in Marin -- almost lost it all.

"This property came into our family in about 1918, so we're [here] almost a hundred years," marveled Kitty Dolcini, gazing at the white farmhouse standing on the hill. "I've heard stories of my father growing up here and my grandfather and grandmother living here. I was a bit of a princess, being the Number Five child but the first girl after four boys, so it was really a lot of fun."

"With seven siblings, there was disagreement about how things should be run," she said. "This ranch just wouldn't support seven families. There was talk of putting a sale sign up at the end of the road."

A sale to developers could have meant ten new estates on the land or a golf course.

"It's really sad," Dolcini said, waving away tears. "I had to just say, I'm going to try to do this."

What she did was to go to Point Reyes to ask for help from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, or MALT, the country's first land trust dedicated to saving agricultural land. It was founded in 1980 and is funded by private donors and public agencies.

Executive Director Jamison Watts says the trust pays the owner for the value of development rights.

"Agricultural land trusts basically buy and extinguish the development rights on a given property with a legal tool called a conservation easement," he said.

The easement is usually worth 40 or 50% of the land's value. The owner doesn't share the title but agrees to agriculture use only; no subdividing, no development. If the owner sells, the easement goes with the deal. So far, 75 families have signed up, totaling 47,000 acres protected. That's almost half of the privately owned farm land in Marin.

The County of Marin holds some easements too, but they cover only a fraction as many acres as MALT. There are other land trusts in the Bay Area that protect farm land, but most work to protect open space too.

"My hope is we will protect 100,000 acres of Marin's farmland by 2040," Watts said.

He has to think seriously about 2040 and way beyond, because MALT has to be around to protect these easements in perpetuity, just like farmers have to agree to them forever.

"This is a one-time deal," Watts said. "Once you do it, you can't get out."

Kitty Dolcini doesn't want out.

"They basically handed us a big fat check," she said brightly. "And with that check, my brother Doug and I bought out our siblings."

Dolcini sells eggs from her pasture-raised chickens from a farm stand on her property and at farmers' markets. Her brother raises cattle and his daughter is doing hormone and anti-biotic-free grass-fed beef. Dolcini thinks the generations before them would approve:

"Our family is still here and their generations -- their great, great grandchildren are still here. I think it's a really wonderful thing."

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