The California Land Conservation Act of 1965 – known as the Williamson Act – bases property tax rates for agricultural land on its income-producing capability as open space rather than its Prop 13 value for owners who promise to keep the land undeveloped for at least 10 years.

More than half of the state’s 30 million acres of farm and ranch are currently protected under the Williamson Act.

The Williamson Act has been under attack by this administration for several years now.

Governor Schwarzenegger, although establishing strong environmental leadership credentials with GHG emission control legislation and raising awareness of these issues across the globe, has taken action completely contrary to those other efforts by blue penciling virtually all of the money allocated for tax subventions under the Williamson Act.

Most policy makers who view the preservation of agricultural land as a priority consider the Williamson Act an effective tool to address the policy issue.

Some believe that the extraordinary budget times require that these sorts of budget reductions be put in place. 

It is a bad year.  However, the blue pencil work by the Governor not only ended the funding of the program by the state and transferred it to counties, it left the legal obligations in place for the next decade. 

So take the $32 million that was “saved” this year and consider that the contracts between counties and the landowners extend for another nine years.

We actually like the Williamson Act the way it was.

However, even if we were to accept the alternative idea that this policy should be carried out with zoning control imposed by the counties and funding provided by the counties, the process of simply eliminating funding was a lost opportunity.

If the administration is going to simply reduce funding this year on short notice with a blue pencil, then it has an obligation to step up and offer reforms to the act immediately. 

Counties are on the hook for these subventions due to an understanding that they would be paid by the state. Now they have a contractual obligation and no resources to fund it.

The loss of the Williamson Act is a shame. The way it was handled is worse.

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