Many of California’s most fertile valleys are located far from Sacramento, but millions of farmland acres are nonetheless being threatened by an ongoing crisis in that city. For the first time in four years, California’s most important land conservation program is being threatened, as Governor Schwarzenegger tries to close a lingering structural budget deficit.
The California Land Conservation Act of 1965 is one of the most unique farmland protection laws in the country. While most states have some form of preferential assessment practice for agricultural land, California’s Williamson Act requires a 10- or 20-year commitment by landowners to maintain the land as agricultural or open space in return for lower property taxes based on the income-producing capability of the land. This commitment takes the form of a contract between the landowner and the local government.
In Sonoma County, nearly 300,000 of our 500,000 acres of farmland and pastures are protected under the Williamson Act. For 40 years, the landmark legislation has been a vital tool in preserving agricultural lands and open space. The Act is unique, because it combines planning and zoning tools with property tax and open space policies. The result has been retention of millions of acres of land and stabilization of the state’s agricultural economy.
Statewide, the property tax relief to Williamson Act contract holders is roughly $150 million annually. Since 1972, the state’s general fund has offset those foregone property tax revenues to counties through open space subventions. Today, thanks to a surge in Williamson Act enrollments over the last three years (including more than 400,000 acres in Merced County alone), those subventions total about $40 million annually.
Property tax relief isn’t the only reason California farmers and ranchers participate in the Williamson Act. A statewide survey of 190 participating landowners in 13 counties identified three additional reasons: participants believe farming and ranching is the highest and best use of their land; they have an emotional attachment to the land; and they want to pass it on to the next generation as farm or ranch land.
The Williamson Act provides landowners with the certainty they’ll be able to continue to farm or ranch their land without the intrusion of incompatible, nonagricultural uses. Farmers and ranchers have demonstrated they’re willing to restrict their own development rights in exchange for the assurance that their neighbor won’t sell out either. The law requires the creation of 100-acre minimum “agricultural preserves” and restricts uses in those preserves to uses compatible with agriculture.
Governor Schwarzenegger has recently proposed elimination of state funding for the program to help close a growing budget shortfall. Thankfully, there’s already a groundswell of support in the legislature to maintain the funding. Immediately following the governor’s announced cuts, members of the state senate and assembly went on record in strong support of open space subvention funding. In numerous individual and group letters to the governor, they urged continued full funding of the subvention. For example, 31 members of the legislature’s rural caucus requested the governor restore funding for this worthy program.
It’s vital to the protection of our rural environment that the Williamson Act continue. Tough budget times call for wise decisions by our elected leaders, but it would be unwise to eliminate such a highly successful program. If you care about the rural heritage of our state and the unique open spaces this program helps create and protect, contact the governor and urge him to save it.
Fourth-generation Sonoma County rancher Lex McCorvey is executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau which has 3,300 members.
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