A Major University Plans to Destroy a Unique Organic Farm
A Community of Feisty Farmers Vows to Keep Peotone Airport-Free

By Gar Smith / The-Edge
March 29, 2004

A Major University Plans to Destroy a Unique Organic Farm
Gar Smith / The-Edge

The wide open space: In the middle of housing, freeways and shopping malls, the Gill Tract farmlands unfurl beneath the hills of Albany, California. Credit: Gar Smith / The-Edge
Farms in Berkeley? Not if the University of California gets its way.

In the midst of harsh economic times, the University of California at Berkeley is on a growth binge with plans to build a hulking hotel-conference center in the downtown and a scheme to plant a commercial shopping mall the Gill Tract, a patch of open space three miles northwest of campus. But the 14-acre Gill Tract (which is actually in the neighboring town of Albany) is not your average swatch of "undeveloped" land -- it is the last, largest parcel of living farmland in the East Bay. And, for most of the past 100 years, that soil has been farmed organically.

Ignacio Chapela, associate professor in the UCB's College of Natural Resources disputes the University's claim that the land is "undeveloped." Chapela points out that more than 98 percent of living species on Earth are microbes, plants and trees. As Chapela sees it, this means that the Tract's soil has been homesteaded by complex microbial, plant and animal communities for tens of thousands of years.

Bugs and plants aren't the only living things that have taken up residence at on this land. The tract's pine and palm woodlands and its two native streams -- Cordonices and Village Creek -- provide habitat for monarch butterflies, rare and endangered Red-legged tree frogs, California slender salamanders and garter snakes. Steelhead trout have been sighted in Cordonices Creek.

"Vibrant Mixed-use" and "Gourmet Liquor Stores"
In July 2002, UCB invited bids for the construction of "a vibrant mixed-use university neighborhood" that would provide new housing for childless UC students (with a typical two-bedroom apartment renting for $1640 a month). The plan called for restoring the local creeks and installing "paths and bikeways" but the plan also calls for a 72,000 supermarket. In order to accommodate the new construction, the developer has to promise to spend $1,980,000 to "relocate" the Gill Tract farmlands.

UCB claims it has to develop the 77-acre University Village site to build more housing for UC students but the plan calls for demolishing412 units that rent for $768 a month and replacing them with more than a thousand two-bedroom apartments priced at $1,366. Students are already complaining that they can't afford these prices. And unlike the existing units, the new housing would be off-limits to families with children.

UC's own Director of Housing Facilities Operations and Services Bob Jacobs admitted that "If we just fixed up the units, we could keep rents lower for 15 years."

In addition to tripling the rentals and doubling the rents, UCB would also rake in revenue from leasing the commercial properties. The leasing strategy allows UCB to fatten its revenue stream without being exposed to local taxation.

An Alternative, Green Vision from Urban Roots
Urban Roots, a coalition of community groups, university staff and environmental groups, pointed out that it is impossible to pick up and move a century-old farm. Urban Roots also noted that, while the Gill Tract helped to store and filter the winter rains and purified the local air, UCB's proposed commercial development would pave the land for cars and drive air pollution over state-permitted limits.

As a state-supported institution, UCB can ignore local zoning regulations (and usually does, which has given rise to one of the persistent grains of grit that irritates the longstanding town-vs-gown friction). The only way to influence the university was through the Request for Proposal process.

Urban Roots rose to the occasion and crafted a competing design that envisioned a European village with "bustling public plazas," orchard courtyards, rooftop gardens, narrow streets, pedestrian bridges and bridges "over creeks and between rooftops."

Urban Roots showed how it would be possible to safeguard the farm and woodland while maintaining all of UCB's objectives. The Urban Roots plan included 100,000 square feet of commercial development space, noting that "the community has expressed a strong desire for small retail, rather than lager retail occupation."

UC dismissed this grassroots alternative and issued a Draft Environmental Impact Review (DEIR) that stated there would be "no significant cumulative effects" from destroying the farmland. The DEIR also ruled that the site was not "farmland of significant local importance," even though 15 neighboring families routinely grow vegetables on the land and it is used as a teaching site by 50 local schools.

At the same time it has served the university's research needs, the Gill Tract has served as a community farm, employing at-risk youth to grow food for homeless families. Urban Roots argues that saving the tract could enhance the local economy by providing both jobs and crops. The US Census of Agriculture has established that small farms are more productive than large chemical-intensive agri-biz operations. In terms of dollar-value-per-acre, the Census found America's most productive farms were small urban plots located in the Bronx and San Francisco. Using a year-round planting rotation, Urban Roots estimates the Gill Tract could produce 10 tons of food annually, while still setting aside land for traditional family gardens.

The Berkeley City Council and the Albany Board of Education have both expressed official opposition to the plan but the university has a long history of ignoring local politics.

Farmer, photographer and author Michael Abelman (On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm) asks the essential question: "We can all survive without another condominuium, Taco Bell, chopping center. Can we really survive without fertile soils, without fresh and unpoisoned food, without a place to teach our children about interconnections and context, or a place to gather on the land?"

A Community of Feisty Farmers Vows to Keep Peotone Airport-Free
Gar Smith / The-Edge

The farmers of Peotone, Illinois won international attention for their David-and-Goliath struggle to defend their way of life by creating a "crop circle" that was visible to overflying aircraft. Credit: AP / Color by The-Edge
Illinois Governor George H. Ryan wants to build a huge airport -- three times the size of Chicago’s sprawling O’Hare International -- in the farming heartland of Eastern Will County, 40 miles south of Chicago. A group of local farmers opposed to the Peotone Airport has formed a group called STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down) to stop the development.

The Peotone Airport would eventually consume 24,000 acres of farmland and nature reserves (25 square miles). “Growing numbers of ordinary citizens are becoming militant -- fast. They have to,” says STAND’s Anthony Rayson, a local farmer-writer-activist. “These maniacs really do want to destroy our longstanding communities in this pristine wonderland for an unwanted airport,” Rayson says. “This could be the biggest black-hole-money-pit-boondoggle of all time!”

The airport and resulting development would force thousands of farming families off the land. It would destroy the Raccoon Grove Forest Preserve, the Kankakee River, the Monee Reservoir. “There is no available water,” notes STAND. Airport would “choke off five streams that flow into the Kankakee River and play havoc with the area’s drainage. It would poison our wells and ruin the aquifer.” Eastern Will County is also in the flyway of migratory sandhill cranes.

Even before the Sept. 11 bombings sent the US airline industry into an economic tailspin, it was clear that this fifth airport was not needed. Several existing airports in Gary, Rockford and Milwaukee Joliet and Kanakee are currently underserved. Even the major air carriers had expressed no interest in the new site.

Nonetheless Gov. George H. Ryan has pushed the legislature to allocate $45 million to purchase an initial 4,200 acres for an “inaugural airport.”

If It Isn't Needed, Why Build It?
If the airport isn’t needed, why the push to build it? Rep. Jessie Jackson Jr. says the issue is jobs. STAND responds: Why not create jobs building a high-tech centers, colleges, community health care facilities or affordable housing?

“It’s a politically connected land grab,” charges Rayson. “This area is checkered with blank land trust holdings, no doubt held by wealthy speculators.”

To fight the airport plot -- the “Field of Schemes” he calls it -- Rayson began publishing a newspaper called the Rural Life Standard. He testified before state commissions. He flew to Washington with his wife and two sons to lobby the Iowa delegation.

Farmers STAND Up to the Developers
On Mother’s Day, STAND organized a pro-Peotone Parade that bought out thousands of spectators who cheered as farmers drove by in antique tractors and mothers pushed babystrollers beneath banners reading “Please Don’t Pave Paradise to Put Up an Airport.”

One of the parade “floats” was supplied by a local “tinkerer” who had installed a jet-engine on the back of a hay-wagon. When the engine was turned on, it produced a deafening roar that had everyone holding their ears.

“We don’t have tens of millions of dollars like our opponents,” Rayson admits. But these Iowa farmers do have moxie. In 1999, they scored an international media coup when they carved a 160-foot-wide anti-airport “crop circle” into a hayfield. Last summer Rayson and Scott Pignatiello, armed with “a ball of twine, a couple of lawnmovers and some beers” carved a new 400-feet wide crop circle. “I figured at $1.75 for a ball of twine and gas, why not?” Rayson told the Daily Southtown.

Chicago Mayor Daly has announced a $6 billion plan to double the capacity of O’Hare, a decision that removed one of the strongest arguments for creating the area’s fifth airfield.

Stop the Sprawl-mongers!
Even if the airport is stopped, Rayson warns, the “sprawl-mongers” will be back with new plans “be it a community-ruining expressway, ugly TIF warehouses, a massive dump, a tire burner, junkyard, prison, strip mall or whatever.” No matter what comes their way, the families of Peotone

“Our children are looking up to us to show some courage. After all, it’s their future that we are fighting for. We’ll learn about each other and become a real community as we battle together, under seige. Maybe this debate will be the catalyst for real citizen input on a whole wide range of issues. We’ll leave a legacy of bravely fighting for our principles, our families, our neighbors and our communities, as we insist upon our soverignty and liberty as US citizens. We’re not leaving!”

“We want peace and quiet. I just want to hear the grass grow when I come home. I don’t feel deprived because my area isn’t crisscrossed and grid-locked by major expressways,” Rayson says. “I can live without a Starbucks, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart within spitting distance. I like to walk and ride my bike and not be in my car all the time. I like to hear the crickets and cicadas at night and watch the stars light up the sky, rather than huddle in my sound-proofed house, glued to the idiot box.

“Take your sprawl and your engines and your asphalt and your ‘progress’ and keep it! I’ll gladly suffer through a natural life -- every single, glorious day.”

STAND, PO Box 433, Monee, IL 60449, www.standnoairport.org.

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