Williamson Act receives support in Legislature

Issue Date: April 2, 2014
By Kate Campbell
California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger testifies on behalf of Williamson Act funding during an Assembly subcommittee hearing at the state Capitol.
Photo/Kate Campbell

With California's economy healing after years of recession, state lawmakers are considering restoring funds to the Williamson Act, a $30 million to $40 million program that for decades has protected agricultural land and open space from development. Funding was cut to $1,000 in the 2009-10 state budget during the recession.

The program provides funding to county governments, known as subventions, to help offset reduced property tax revenue after entering into contracts with landowners who agree to restrict their land use to agricultural activities. In exchange, the property is assessed at production value, rather than market value that is tied to development activities.

"The map of California would look much different today if we didn't have the Williamson Act to help manage growth," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger testified last week before an Assembly budget subcommittee in Sacramento. "When development comes to farmland, the Williamson Act is the only thing that can help farmers stay in production, by protecting against their land being reassessed at new and higher development values."

About 15.5 million acres in 52 counties currently are covered by the program, down from about 16.5 million acres in 2010. The program is administered by the state Department of Conservation. To qualify for inclusion, parcels must be located in an agricultural preserve designated by a county or city.

The state Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst's Office have criticized the program, saying it's not cost effective and that the state doesn't exercise enough control over specific land parcels, can't confirm development pressure, and that the program lacks incentives for landowners to remain under contract and permanently change land-use patterns.

"Though I respect the work of the LAO and Department of Finance, I respectfully disagree as it relates to farmland conservation," Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, testified before the committee. "We know development pressure comes from a lot of different sources. It's not always just urban sprawl."

Eggman, who chairs the Assembly Agriculture Committee, said fragmentation of working landscapes through subdivision into ranchettes with large homes and "a couple of horses" poses as much threat as large housing developments.

"We're the biggest agricultural state in this nation," she said. "If people can sell their property for a thousand times more for development than they can make farming it, at some point we have to look at the situation and ask where are our (public policy) priorities and what we're really willing to invest in."

Eggman is among nearly three dozen members of the Legislature who've signed a letter of support for restoring the program's funding.

"There's always discussion of funding consensus in this building," said Justin Oldfield, California Cattlemen's Association vice president for government relations, referring to the state Capitol. "What you'll find if you look at the stakeholders who want the Williamson Act subventions restored is that there's consensus on this issue among agricultural and environmental interests."

Also testifying about the benefits of the Williamson Act and urging the program be funded in the 2014-15 state budget were representatives from Western United Dairymen, the Nature Conservancy, the California Building Industry Association and the California State Association of Counties.

Wenger took exception to the LAO conclusion that the state exercises no restrictions over land protected by the Williamson Act.

"Quite to the contrary, the Williamson Act has guidelines that can be more restrictive than local zoning ordinances," Wenger testified.

He noted the example of a Farm Bureau member who wanted to make farmstead cheese on his 360-acre property and include a small visitor center. Because the land was in the Williamson Act, the state Department of Conservation said it was an incompatible use.

"We had to go to bat for our member to convince the department a farmstead cheese program that allowed visitors is an agricultural activity and did conform with Williamson Act program requirements," he said.

The program has provided stability to participating counties and allows for better land-use planning, Wenger said. Agricultural land, whether used for grazing or crops, provides wildlife habitat, including providing open space for 75 percent of threatened and endangered species.

"The more private land we can keep in agricultural production, the more open space we can provide, which is a benefit to wildlife diversity in this state," Wenger stressed.

At the budget hearing's conclusion, decision about funding the Williamson Act was held to allow further review of an appropriate funding level for the program.

"We couldn't be more pleased with the outcome of this initial subcommittee hearing and we look forward to continuing to work with the Budget Committee on this important issue," said John Gamper, CFBF taxation and land use director, adding that the funding question would likely be held open until Gov. Brown releases his budget revision in May.

Gamper said efforts to regain funding for the Williamson Act will focus on the Senate side of the Legislature.

"At this point, we're trying to educate some of the new members who may not be familiar with the Williamson Act, its history and its effectiveness," he said. "We want them to understand this program provides benefits to all Californians."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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

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