Williamson Act funds restored in state budget


Issue Date: August 29, 2007
Ching Lee

The Williamson Act was created in 1965 to protect agricultural land and open space from urban development. Landowners who participate in the program agree to keep their land in agriculture for at least 10 years.

Heeding the call of California farmers and ranchers, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature preserved the popular Williamson Act in the $145 billion state budget the governor signed last week.

The budget maintains $39.1 million for the state government contribution to the farmland protection program, which was initially slated for removal in the governor's May budget revision. The governor later committed to protecting the program after farmers and ranchers urged the state to restore it.

"The Williamson Act is the most successful environmental-protection program in California history," said California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar. "We appreciate the commitment the governor and the Legislature have made to maintaining the environmental benefits of productive farmland."

Both the state Senate and Assembly budget committees had voted to fully fund the program. Members of the CFBF's grassroots Farm Team network had sent more than 1,000 e-mails to the governor and legislators urging continued support of the program.

"Through personal visits, phone calls, letters and e-mails, farmers and ranchers reinforced the crucial role that the Williamson Act plays in protecting productive farmland from conversion to other uses," Mosebar said. "We're gratified that the governor and the Legislature ultimately agreed that the program's benefits to the environment and economy far outweigh its relatively small cost."

Officially called the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, the Williamson Act was created to protect agricultural land and open space from urban development by providing lower property tax rates to farmers and ranchers. Landowners who participate in the program save 20 percent to 75 percent in property taxes each year in exchange for keeping their land in agriculture for at least 10 years. If forced to pay in full, many farmers and ranchers say they would have to sell their land.

Under the program, the state reimburses counties for the loss of property tax revenue—$5 for each acre of prime farmland covered by a Williamson Act contract and $1 for each acre of non-prime farmland covered. An estimated 16.5 million acres of farm and ranch land in 52 of the state's counties are enrolled in the program, including 6 million acres of prime farmland.

Mosebar called that "a huge benefit for a small investment" and noted that many farmers and ranchers consider the program vital in allowing them to continue to produce food, fiber and flowers.

"Urban growth keeps California farmland under constant pressure," he said. "State and local governments should be very proud of their ongoing commitment to protect farmland and open space through their participation in the Williamson Act."

Lawmakers approved the state's final spending plan last week by a 27-12 vote, just meeting the required two-thirds majority. The passage ended a 52-day deadlock that began July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. It was the state's third-longest budget impasse in 30 years, surpassed only by those in 1992 and 2002.

Using his line-item veto power, Schwarzenegger trimmed an additional $703 million from the final budget, zeroing out this year's operating deficit and bringing to the general fund a total reserve of $4.1 billion, the largest in the state's history. The spending plan contains no new taxes.

Other items included in the final 2007-08 state budget include:

  • $774.4 million for levee repair and flood control improvements. Projects to be funded include the Mid-Valley area levee reconstruction; south Sacramento County streams; American River watershed such as Folsom Dam; American River flood control for Natomas features, West Sacramento project, Sutter pumping plant, Sutter bypass east water control structures; and feasibility studies for other projects.
  • $6.2 million and 1.5 positions for the Agricultural Water Quality Grant Program, which provides grants for public agencies or nonprofit organizations to improve agricultural water quality, including research projects and construction of agricultural drainage water improvements.
  • $65 million for statewide planning activities to address the state's future water supply needs.
  • $1.5 million for county agricultural commissioners to do additional inspections at airports, ports and other public and private facilities for new pests and diseases that could affect California agriculture.
  • $677,000 and 11.4 positions to inspect more vehicles and shipments entering the state and ensure that they are pest-free and complying with plant quarantine regulations.
  • $903,000 and 4.7 positions to enhance the state's capabilities to respond to food-borne illnesses and outbreaks such as E. coli. These resources would allow the California Department of Public Health to quickly respond to and investigate the source of future outbreaks.
  • $40 million for new rental housing and affordable home ownership opportunities for farmworker families.
  • $52 million to expand career technical education courses and programs, including those for agricultural education, in middle schools, high schools and community colleges.
  • $20 million to continue development of the high-speed rail project, including completion of a more detailed financial plan and preliminary engineering and environmental studies.

CFBF policy supports the concept of high-speed rail provided that issues regarding local land use, urbanization, sprawl, cost-effectiveness and environmental impacts are addressed.

"It's very controversial," said CFBF Director of Taxation and Land Use John Gamper of the plan. "Some of our folks think that it's a good idea to have a high-speed rail up the Central Valley and others believe that it will lead to more urbanization and loss of farmland."

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.