Parties holding a Williamson Act or Farmland Security Zone contract, after eligibility determinations and management plan reviews, may mutually agree to rescind a contract (or a portion of) in order to simultaneously enter into a solar-use easement. The new easement requires that the land be used for solar photovoltaic facilities for a term of 20 years, or if the landowner requests, for a term of not less than 10 years.
In 2011, the legislature created solar-use easements (Senate Bill 618, Statutes of 2011, Chapter 596) to provide an option for solar energy projects on marginal and impaired farmland. (See Gov. Code, § 51191-51191.8.) The legislature authorized local governments and landowners to rescind their Williamson Act and Farmland Security Zone contracts when simultaneously entering solar-use easements. (See Gov. Code, § 51255.1.) While the authority to rescind contracts sunset in 2020, it was recently revived by an omnibus bill enacted during the Fall of 2022 (Senate Bill 1489).
Rescission and simultaneous entry of a solar-use easement is now once again a potential avenue for solar energy development on land subject to Williamson Act and Farmland Security Zone contracts. Other potential options include contract cancellation, non-renewal, or local government determinations that certain solar projects are compatible with contract restrictions. Any local decision to rescind a Williamson Act or Farmland Security Zone contract in favor of a solar-use easement requires Department of Conservation (DOC) approval in consultation with the Department of Food and Agriculture.
Local Governments Role
Landowners and local governments interested in solar-use easements should carefully review the applicable statutes at sections 51191-51191.8, and 51255.1 of the Government Code. Additionally, the DOC adopted detailed regulations in 2014 that further explain criteria and requirements, including administrative fees, for solar-use easements. (See Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, §§ 3100-3117.) These statutes and regulations detail the information needed to support the DOC's approval of a rescission in favor of a solar-use easement, which must be "based on substantial evidence." (Gov. Code, § 51191.) If all requirements can be met, the landowner is required to pay a fee equal to 6.25 percent of the valuation (unrestricted fair market value) of the property, or 12.5 percent for a farmland security zone contract in addition to any administrative fees to conduct the process.
The DOC expects local governments to take the lead and work directly with landowners interested in solar-use easements, and for local government to make the initial, optional determination whether to proceed with a rescission in favor of a solar-use easement. The DOC will not opine on eligibility without a formal request from the local government acknowledging an intent to pursue a solar-use easement and without a complete application supported with the evidence and analysis required under the solar-use easement regulations. Further, the DOC intends to direct all initial eligibility inquiries from landowners and solar energy developers to local governments.
Department of Conservation's Role
The DOC is unsure of the likely demand for solar-use easements as such easements were not widely pursued during the nine years before the authority lapsed in 2020. Given current resource constraints and the uncertainty over demand, the time needed to process rescission applications is unknown. The DOC's review period will depend on the quality and thoroughness of applications. For workload planning purposes, the DOC strongly encourages local governments provide early notification of anticipated applications for solar-use easements, recognizing, however, that applications and eligibility support will be developed at the local level as described above.
If you have any questions about the Department of Conservation's role in solar-use easements, please email firstname.lastname@example.org