Gov. Brown signs bill to preserve Williamson Act
By Kate Campbell
After months of uncertainty, a bill signed by Gov. Brown last week reinstates a revised Williamson Act program intended to preserve the state's landmark farmland-conservation law. Brown signed Assembly Bill 1265 by Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, which establishes the revised form of the Williamson Act through 2016.
The bill, which takes effect immediately, authorizes counties to revise the term for Williamson Act contracts from 10 years to nine years or from 20 to 18 years—a 10 percent reduction in contract length in return for retaining 90 percent of the property tax relief offered by the act.
"For more than 45 years, the Williamson Act has served as an effective conservation program that helps farmers withstand development pressures and stay in farming," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. "We applaud the governor for upholding the real benefits of the Williamson Act."
The act became law in 1965 and protects 16.5 million acres of California farmland. Named for its author, Kern County Assemblyman John Williamson, the law requires farmland enrolled in the program to be assessed on its production value, rather than its "factored base-year value" under Proposition 13. Participating landowners agree to retain their land in agricultural use for the length of the contract.
For many years, the state reimbursed participating counties their foregone property tax revenue. But those payments, known as subventions, became a frequent bargaining point in state budget talks and eventually were eliminated.
That caused some counties to consider discontinuing the Williamson Act. Farm Bureau proposed the program contained in AB 1265 as an alternative to encourage counties to maintain the Williamson Act.
Wenger said the law signed by the governor "will save farmers and ranchers throughout California millions of dollars in property taxes and we're glad he signed it. The benefits to all Californians include locally produced food and contracts that ensure land enrolled in the program cannot be used for any purpose besides agriculture."
Having the law officially back on the books is especially important for eight counties that have already adopted the revised version of the farmland protection program. Kings, Madera, Merced, Mendocino, Shasta, Stanislaus, Tulare and Yolo counties all adopted an earlier version of the program under Senate Bill 863 last year, only to see it repealed in March as part of budget legislation. The governor's action means the counties currently participating in the program can continue to implement the shorter-term contracts for the 2011 tax year.
The provisions of the alternative funding mechanism include:
• If counties receive less than one-half of their foregone General Fund property tax revenue from the Open Space Subvention Program, they would be authorized to implement a new provision of the Williamson Act to allow contracts to go from 10 years to nine years or, in the case of 20-year Williamson Act contracts, to 18 years.
• The 10 percent reduction in the length of the contract restrictions would trigger a recapture of 10 percent of the participating landowners' property tax savings.
• Any increased revenues generated by properties under a new contract will be paid to the county. Because the increased revenue will be allocated exclusively to counties, they would recoup 50 percent or more of their foregone property tax revenue.
• Landowners may choose not to renew their contracts and begin the termination process.
"The eight participating counties can expect to recoup $6 million in revenue through this revised program," said John Gamper, CFBF taxation and land use director. "Once adopted by counties, the program's operations should be pretty simple."
At the same time, the benefits to the public of protecting farmland have been retained, Wenger said.
"Besides locally produced food, experts agree agriculture will provide economic stimulus for the foreseeable future," he said. "We've reached a point where people understand how significant food production is and that in California the pressures on farmland and farmers are intense, which tends to drive up land values.
"The Williamson Act helps address some of those issues and at the same time preserves open space for species and habitat protection," Wenger said. "And, with the revised Williamson Act signed by the governor, funds to cover subventions to counties for foregone property tax no longer come from the state's General Fund, but the benefits to farmers and the public remain."
Along with acknowledging Nielsen's role in introducing the bill, CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis noted that Sens. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Doug La Malfa, R-Richvale, both served as principal co-authors.
"Of course, we also want to express our sincere appreciation to Gov. Brown for helping to save this valuable land conservation program," Matteis said, "and to all the members of the Save the Williamson Act Coalition who worked diligently for re-enactment of the law."
In a prepared statement, Nielsen said the new law "will provide peace of mind and hope for the future for our hard-working California farm families and their employees."
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.