Paul Payne, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Free-range turkey pioneer Willie Benedetti doesn’t want to work forever.
Instead of raising fat birds for Thanksgiving tables, the 68-year-old farmer hopes someday to be playing with grandchildren in a house he’d like to build for one of his sons on his 267-acre ranch near Valley Ford.
But he said that’s not possible because of a new Marin County law meant to preserve agricultural lands that would force him to keep farming if he constructs the new dwelling.
Now, he’s teaming up with a conservative legal action group that wages high-profile property rights cases, challenging the mandate in a lawsuit against the county and the California Coastal Commission, accusing them of coercion and violating his constitutional rights.
“What they are doing is not right,” said the owner of nationally known Willie Bird Turkeys, whose family has owned the land near the Estero Americano just south of the Sonoma County line since 1972. “To put pressure on the farming community. It’s ludicrous.”
The stakes could be high for many of the estimated 200 landowners in the coastal zone. A victory for Benedetti and the Pacific Legal Foundation would have broader implications on state and local government’s authority to set such strict rules for development.
“If he got a court to say local land use restrictions and basic tools like zoning are an unconstitutional deprivation of property rights, all bets would be off to maintain any type of consistent character in communities,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
However, the ability to do just that is “battle-tested in the courts” and is not likely to go away, said Huffman, a former environmental attorney whose district runs from Marin County up the coast to Oregon.