County government, farm and environmental representatives are working on ideas to reform the long-term revenue outlook for the Williamson Act, California’s venerable program for agricultural and open land preservation.

The urgency was underscored in June when the state mailed annual checks to counties and other agencies for Williamson Act subventions, a subsidy that comes out to mere pennies for some.

You might think I’m exaggerating by saying “pennies.” For some, I’m exaggerating on the high side.

With small acreages benefiting from substantial property tax reductions to remain in agriculture, ranching or open land, Orange County and the city of Camarillo received checks for one cent from the state.

Larger amounts went to more ag-intensive counties, such as one for $98.07 to Tulare County.

“The goal is to find a sustainable funding source to continue the subvention program,” said San Benito County Administrative Officer Susan Thompson. “We’ve looked at a number of ways dollars can be identified at the state level.”

Thompson has participated this spring with the Save the Williamson Act Coalition, drawing in representatives from many farm counties. In March, they met in Fresno to talk about strategies to bolster the state subsidy.

In the 2090-10 budget belt-tightening, the state cut the total subventions to $1,000 statewide. As recently as 2007-08, the state distributed as much as $38 million in Williamson Act subventions to counties and other local agencies.

For instance, the state subvention payment in Tulare County, which has 1.1 million acres in Williamson Act contracts, has gone in three years from $3.4 million to $3.1 million to $98.07.

“We’re scrambling to figure out what to do because it’s a huge hit,” said Ann Chapman, a planner for the Tulare County Resource Management Agency.

The Williamson Act protects about 16.5 million acres of farmland, which is more than half of the farm- and ranch-land in California. Land is preserved from commercial development with contracts that are usually a minimum of 10 years.

Counties and other agencies often dovetail Williamson Act protections with general plan conservation, infrastructure improvements and programs to maintain open space buffers.

The state’s fiscal pinch on the Williamson Act is “taking away the incentive to set aside the lands,” said Bill Chiat, executive director of the California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions. It makes it that much harder for farmers and ranchers to say no when a developer comes knocking.

The state subventions are supposed to compensate the counties for revenue shortfalls from lowered property taxes assigned in Williamson Act contracts, Chiat said.

San Benito County last year called a moratorium on new Williamson Act contracts, said Thompson. She expects other counties to follow suit and even cancel existing contracts, given the fiscal crisis.

“The development pressure on our little county is quite intense,” said Thompson. There are proposals for large developments to house people who commute to Silicon Valley.

Because of the revenue crisis, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors moved in February to discontinue renewal of Williamson Act contracts.

Coalition advocates and state reps have been talking about compromise solutions.

“There’s been an indication by the administration that they would not be adverse to a general-fund dollars bridge toward a solution if we found some dedicated revenue source,” said Steve Worthley, a supervisor in Tulare County. “We’re trying to get it away from being a budgetary bargaining chip.”

Revenue sources discussed include:

  • Penalties when Williamson Act contracts are canceled mid-term; this money now goes into the state’s general fund.
  • A new charge on property buyers who breach Williamson pacts while using eminent domain.
  • A contribution from farmers or farm groups in which the property tax break is lessened and the difference is used to compensate the counties.

The latter idea comes at a particularly bad time because of the recession’s toll on farm income. New figures came in showing a 19 percent loss in gross revenue from the sale of commodities in Tulare County, Worthley noted.

“We know we’re in this together with the state,” said Thompson. “We’re trying to find ways to preserve a very positive 45-year-old program that’s been very good at preserving agricultural production in the state.”

Lance Howland can be reached at