Cara Martinson is CSAC’s Legislative Analyst for Agriculture and Natural Resources. For more, visit The County Voice.

County government provides a wide range of services to its residents from public safety to health care to recycling programs.  Included in this long list of services is the lesser known Land Conservation Act, also known as the Williamson Act.

Simply put, the Williamson Act is the single most effective agricultural land preservation program in California.

Enacted in 1965, this voluntary program provides lower property taxes to agricultural landowners in exchange for their contractual commitments with participating cities or counties to keep their land in agricultural or open space uses for at least 10 years. In 1971, state funding was provided which created a formula for allocating payments to local governments based on acreage enrolled in the program. This financial support from the state provides a tangible incentive for local governments to stay in the program and initiate more contracts, enabling the greater protection of California’s farmland and open space.

Since its adoption 45 years ago, the Williamson Act has grown into the state’s most important farmland protection program protecting 16.5 million acres of farmland throughout California. In addition to preserving our state’s agriculture, lands under Williamson Act contract help contribute to meeting California’s AB 32 and SB 375 goals through carbon sequestration and effective land use planning. Counties use the program to implement general plan conservation programs which address the growth of urban areas, the expansion of public infrastructure and the conservation of important agriculture and open space resources.  The program also helps to maintain open space and critical habitat for many of California’s most sensitive species.

Despite its importance, budget cuts are threatening to unravel the entire program. The Governor suspended subvention payments to local governments in the 2009 state budget and is threatening to do so again. Many of the counties that participate in the program will not be able to continue the program without help from the state.

The Williamson Act has proven to be an effective tool for encouraging the preservation of existing farmland and the preservation of open space in an ever increasing urban California. Given the Williamson Act’s statewide benefits to the economy, agriculture, the environment, and the livability of California, it is our hope that state leaders will demonstrate their commitment to the program by reinvesting in its long term success through the restoration of $38 million to the Act’s subvention program.

For more, visit The County Voice, a place where CSAC, county officials and stakeholders can voice their thoughts on governance and issues that impact California’s 58 counties.