Siskiyou County Continues Williamson Act
By Dale Andreasen
Thu Aug 13, 2009, 09:45 AM PDT
Yreka, Calif. –
Followed by resounding applause from the crowded chambers, board chair Michael Kobseff said. “As long as I’m a board member in Siskiyou County, I’m going to support the Williamson Act.”The remark was made during a spirited discussion at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting. Supervisors and others discussed what the county should do in face of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto last month of $28 million to fund the act that has helped preserve agricultural lands and open spaces in California since 1965.
Land owners who sign a Williamson Act contract get substantial breaks on their property taxes by agreeing to keep the land in agricultural production or as open space. The state has been subsidizing the counties for the loss in property tax through a subvention program.Siskiyou County had been receiving about $780,000 per year in subvention payments.
Last year it was cut to $700,000. This budget year it will be zero unless the program is restored by a lawsuit, by the Legislature, or by the governor. Farmers, ranchers and environmental groups support the program. Public Health and Community Development Department Director Terry Barber pointed out that seven contract applications are currently “in the pipeline” and she needed guidance as to how to move forward. Two of the applications are for amendments to existing contracts and five are new applications for an additional 1,446 acres to be put into the program.She informed the board that there are currently 419,000 acres, over 10 percent of the county, involved with Williamson Act contracts.
The supervisors unanimously voted to accept the new applications and give the applicants the option to withdraw or continue at a later date pending what happens to the Williamson Act funding. If an application were withdrawn, the unused portion of their $600 fee would be returned.After much discussion, the supervisors also voted unanimously to continue with the Williamson Act program whether it is funded or not.
The vote was remarkable since both Barber and county counsel Tom Guarino pointed out that the current contracts are self-renewing and that a vote was not necessary.The only way the existing contracts would not be renewed would be if a vote were taken to discontinue the program, explained Barber.Senior county assessor Lauri Foster said there are about 400 Williamson Act contracts currently in effect.“In a nutshell, if we are looking at non-renewal, the tax liability of these property owners could double. Some would quadruple and some could be 10 times as much. It’s not simple, each parcel would have to be assessed separately,” she said.Planning Director Greg Plucker spoke during the discussion also.During a public comment period, Jim Morris of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau asked the supervisors to honor the existing Williamson Act contracts. Otherwise, he said, the increased taxes would be burdensome.“But if these people were forced to subdivide their land, it could be worse for the county,” he added.
Lifelong Scott Valley property owner Mike Bryan also spoke in favor of honoring the contracts. Otherwise, he said he could make more money by subdividing his land. He asked the board to “do everything in your power to preserve open space.”
Jack Cowley, of the Siskiyou County and California Cattlemen’s Association, said he’s been involved with the Williamson Act for years. He said California is expecting a population increase of one million people.“Agricultural land is necessary to feed the people,” he said. “We have to have land to produce food.”
Supervisor Marcia Armstrong said it is important to recognize that Siskiyou County’s economy is agricultural, which, she said, generates twice as much revenue as tourism.“It’s really important that we support agriculture,” she said in an emotional statement.“I would like to believe that the funding will come back,” said Supervisor Ed Valenzuela, “but if it doesn’t, where do we get the $700,000 that we will miss out on?”All five supervisors voted to support agriculture and open spaces in the county and continue with the Williamson Act contracts whether the subvention money comes in from the state or not.
County Administrative Officer Brian McDermott had lunch with Assemblyman Jim Nielson Wednesday. McDermott said Nielson understands the position of the county and said “he will do everything he can to help restore [Williamson Act] funding.”