Commentary: Preserving the Williamson Act will conserve farmland
Since its adoption 44 years ago, the California Land Conservation Act, popularly known as the Williamson Act, has grown into the state's most important farmland protection program. The Williamson Act has served California very well, but it is facing its most significant challenge due to the ongoing state budget crisis.
In addition to protecting one of our state's most valuable resources—our agricultural land—other significant benefits of the act must also be recognized and appreciated for their contribution to our quality of life: the protection of our precious watersheds; the availability of and access to a local, safe and affordable food supply; wildlife habitat; and the beautiful landscapes that are so important to all of our citizens.
The Williamson Act is a voluntary program that provides property tax incentives for landowners who sign a strict contract prohibiting development on the land for an ongoing 10- or 20-year period. The state constitution requires that the land be "enforceably restricted" with a binding contract that limits its use to agriculture, open space or uses that are compatible with agriculture and open space.
The program currently protects more than 16 million acres of agricultural land, much of it having scenic open space and wildlife value. More than half of the state's best or prime farmland in 53 counties is protected by the act.
In addition to its significant impacts on the state and local economies, the Williamson Act is widely appreciated by those in the environmental, agricultural and business communities, as well as by state and local government officials, as one of the most important environmental laws ever adopted in California. It has encouraged good land use planning and prevented leapfrog developments that can be devastating to agricultural and natural resources.
The Williamson Act also provides landowners with an important measure of certainty in a very uncertain marketplace and regulatory environment: certainty that they can continue to farm or ranch their land without the intrusion of incompatible, nonagricultural uses. Farmers and ranchers have demonstrated that they are more than willing to restrict their development rights if they can gain some security that their neighbors won't convert their land to incompatible, nonfarming uses.
The Open Space Subvention Act has provided the state's contribution to farmland protection since 1971. The state subventions, currently $34.7 million, go to local governments based on the land's location and quality. Specifically, for land in the Williamson Act that is defined as prime agricultural land, the county receives $5 per acre. For land considered nonprime, the county receives $1 per acre. For land enrolled in the 20-year Williamson Act contract known as a Farmland Security Zone, counties receive $8 per acre for land within three miles of a city's sphere of influence, $5 per acre for prime agricultural land outside the three-mile line, and $1 per acre for nonprime agricultural land outside the three-mile line.
For the last several years, Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed eliminating state funding for the Open Space Subvention Program. Thankfully, the funding has always been restored as part of budget negotiations. With the deepening budget crisis, the program was once again proposed for elimination in the annual May budget revision, and the Budget Conference Committee has adopted a one-year suspension of the funding.
The consequences of defunding the Open Space Subvention Program will leave counties with several very undesirable alternatives. For example, they could serve nonrenewal notices to all participating landowners and begin the nine-year exit from the contract. This would permanently eliminate the Williamson Act as a tool for farmland protection in California.
The Williamson Act offers an innovative approach to farm and ranch land protection by building an interrelated set of property tax, land use and conservation measures in a single policy package. The Williamson Act is an important component in providing a favorable business climate where farmers and ranchers can continue to produce food for our state, our nation and the world. It also helps protect the environment and provides open space.
Let's not bite the hands that feed us. Urge your county representatives to preserve funding for the Williamson Act.
(John Gamper is the director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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