(Feb. 20) It’s like a doctor saying “In order to save you, we’ll have to kill you.”

Once again, Salinas, Calif.-area produce companies find themselves in a battle with environmental groups about land use.

This time, the environmental lobby actually has the gall to claim its goal is to keep agriculture viable in the long term, though it’s hard to imagine how limiting produce companies’ ability to compete will accomplish this goal.

A proposed initiative in Monterey County would put decisions about development outside of incorporated cities in the hands of voters.

This means if a produce company wanted to expand a facility or build a new processing plant in certain parts of the county, it would have to get a public vote of approval, most likely from voters who have no idea about the business and zoning ramifications.

Dennis Donahue, president of European Vegetable Specialties Inc., Salinas, and a Salinas mayoral candidate, rightly says such a system basically bypasses a representative democracy.

The main adversary to ag interests in this case is LandWatch Monterey County, which has opposed many construction projects by produce companies, including a cooler and shipping facility near Spreckels by D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California.

In its well-publicized campaign against the D’Arrigo construction, LandWatch told people the company was trying to build an office building on farmland, so it’s hard to take seriously the group’s claim of “protecting agriculture.”

Monterey County is the third-largest in the state in agriculture value, with $3.4 billion in sales in 2004.

These fights are becoming all too common in the nation’s salad bowl, but the industry will have to keep fighting to convince voters they’re the good guys.