Williamson Act, What Is The Future?
The California Land Conservation Act of 1965, commonly referred to as the Williamson Act, allows local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. In return, landowners receive property tax assessments which are lower than normal because they are based upon farming and open space uses as opposed to full market value. Local governments have received annual subvention of forgone property tax revenues from the state via the Open Space Subvention Act of 1971, until now.
The Williamson Act was named for John Williamson, a 1960s-era assemblyman from Kern County that gives farmers a property tax subsidy if they pledge to keep their land in agriculture for periods of 10 to 20 years. It currently protects 16.4 million acres of farm and ranch land from development, or 17% of the total acreage of California.
Now it will now be up to cash-strapped counties to decide whether to continue Williamson Act contracts or cancel them. Many rural counties depend on the subvention funds for 10% or more of their annual budgets.
Cancellation would not mean immediate subdivision of farm and ranch lands, because current contracts would have to run their course before farmers could sell land to developers or do it themselves. On the sixth year of the contract, landowners may begin the paper filing process at their respective counties, with ground breaking and subdivision sales occurring in year nine.
Many farmers and ranchers have said the Williamson Act subsidy is the only thing that prevented them from subdividing and developing long ago, and with the current economic situation, with a particularly soft commodity market, it is likely many will sell out and either move to another state or keep their home with a couple acres to live out their lives.
If counties choose to non-renew, land owners may file a protest to lock in their current tax rate for at least three additional years. After that, taxes will be increased each year, based on an incremental scale, until the final year, at which time the taxes will be based on potential use value.
The governors actions could result in a devastating change to the agricultural landscape of the state, destroy the worlds 5th largest provider of food and agricultural commodities, and virtually eliminate an environmentally friendly industry….turning green into brown or black top.
While the governor did leave $1000 in the account for subventions, it is paramount that the California legislators restore funding to the program when they return to session. California agriculture and rural counties are facing literal collapse without immediate action.