NR 2005-12
July 15, 2005

Contact: Tim Herrera
Ed Wilson
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
(916) 323-1886


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WOODLAND – Californians who enjoy the bounty of the state’s farms and ranches, who appreciate open countryside, and who believe it’s important to both accommodate growth and preserve the traditional agricultural economy should celebrate: Today is the 40th anniversary of the California Land Conservation Act, better known as the Williamson Act.

“The landscape throughout California would look dramatically different without the Williamson Act,” said California Secretary for Resources Mike Chrisman, a rancher who has property enrolled in the program. “The Williamson Act has proven to be a tremendous deterrent to leapfrog development and poorly planned growth, and is a boon to agriculture.”

The California Legislature passed the Williamson Act in 1965 to balance the pressures of urban growth on agricultural land by providing an incentive for farmers and ranchers to remain in agriculture. When land is enrolled in a Williamson Act contract, the landowner is taxed at a rate based on the actual use of the land for agricultural purposes, as opposed to its Proposition 13 or unrestricted market value. The program is estimated to save agricultural landowners from 20 to 99 percent in property tax liability each year. In return, the landowner commits to restricting the use of his or her land to agricultural and open space for at least 10 years. The contracts are automatically renewed each year.

“Research tells us that one in three farmers and ranchers enrolled in the Williamson Act would have left agriculture without it,” said Debbie Sareeram, Interim Director of the California Department of Conservation, which administers the program. “More than half of California’s 30 million acres of agricultural and open space – including 70 percent of our prime farmland -- is protected under the Act. The importance of the Williamson Act’s contribution to the state’s economy cannot be overstated.”

The Williamson Act has five goals:

♦ To preserve farmland for a secure food supply for the state, nation and future generations.

♦ To maintain agriculture's contribution to local and state economic health.

♦ To provide a tax incentive to farmers and ranchers who restrict their land to long-term contracts.

♦ To promote orderly city growth and to discourage leapfrog development and the premature loss of farmland.

♦ To preserve open space for its scenic, social, aesthetic and wildlife values.

Every county in the state except Del Norte, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Inyo and Yuba offers Williamson Act contracts. In recent years, Imperial, Mono, Merced, Modoc and Sutter counties have begun programs, swelling the enrollment from 15,969,159 acres in the 1990-91 fiscal year to 16,639,444 acres in the 2004-05 fiscal year. The top counties, by acreage, are Kern (more than 1.7 million), Fresno (1.5 million) and Tulare (1.1 million).

“Agriculture is a huge part of California’s economy, more than $30 billion a year,” noted Bill Pauli, President of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “The Williamson Act program is vitally important to our farmers and ranchers.”

The Williamson Act traces its roots to the post-World War II period. During that time, California’s agricultural and open space lands began to face dramatically increasing conversion pressures from population growth, new commercial enterprises, and rising property taxes. Valuable farmland began disappearing at an alarming rate. In 1965, an interim committee of the California Assembly generated Assembly Bill 2117, authored by John Williamson. In the two years following passage of the Williamson Act, only 200,000 acres were enrolled under contract in six counties. The program might have remained small if not for an addition to the state’s constitution that permits the property to be valued on a restricted basis.

In 1971, the program received another boost when the Open Space Subvention Act created a formula for allocating payments from the state to local governments based on acreage enrolled in the Williamson Act. That provided a tangible incentive to initiate more contracts by partially replacing property tax revenues lost by counties on enrolled land.

While the amount of acreage covered under the Williamson Act has grown in recent years, the program does face challenges. The State Supreme Court has ruled on two occasions that the preferred method to end a contract is non-renewal: allowing the contract and tax benefits to wind down over the remainder of the 10-year commitment. However, some local entities have simply cancelled Williamson Act contracts without adequate review, an action that can prompt litigation.

“We have seen evidence throughout the state of enrolled property being used for things not related to agricultural or open space use – things such as driving ranges, strip malls, houses, warehouses and even private water-skiing lakes,” said Dennis O’Bryant, head of DOC’s Division of Land Resource Protection. “Most of the time, these violations are the result of poor record-keeping and statutory misinterpretations. We work closely with local government to ensure that the Act is upheld.”

Beginning January 1, 2004, a new deterrent to Williamson Act abuses went into effect. AB 1492 was enacted to address the most egregious violations by substantially increasing penalties for contract violations. If, for example, incompatible development takes place on contracted property, the penalty can be as much as 25 percent of the unrestricted fair market value of not only the land, but also of the buildings and related improvements on the land.

In addition to the Williamson Act, DOC offers landowners two other options for protecting agricultural land. In 1998, SB 1182 was signed into law. Sometimes called the "Super Williamson Act," It provides a method for landowners to convert existing Williamson Act contracts to 20-year "Farmland Security Zone'' contracts that provide additional property tax savings. More than 806,000 acres statewide are enrolled in that program. The California Farmland Conservancy Program provides grant funding for projects that use and support permanent agricultural conservation easements. CFCP grants have helped protect about 26,000 acres statewide.

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