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Winter 2009

Closing the Curtain on the Williamson Act

“The state legislature preserved the Williamson Act during the most recent budget negotiations.  This story was published in January 2009 prior to the signing of the state budget.”

California’s 44-year-old state law that allows for the preservation of California’s most prime farmland, known as the Williamson Act, is proposed to be cut to solve California budget mess. Simply stated, the Williamson Act allows owners of agricultural land to voluntarily enter into a contract with the county where the land is located. By the terms of the contract, the landowner promises to keep the land in agriculture for a reduction in property taxes by the county. Contracts are for 10 to 20 years and the state subsidizes the counties for the loss of property tax revenue.

Currently, over 16.4 million acres of California farmland have been protected from development, at a cost to California of $35 million. If cut, this important farmland preservation tool will put millions of acres at risk of development. Agricultural land is usually eyed for development since it is flat and affordable. Cutting the subventions payment to local counties will only force counties to eliminate the program. As cash strapped local governments lay off workers and cut crucial public safety programs they cannot be expected to take an additional loss if the state fails to make the Williamson Act subvention payments.

Williamson Act
2005 Subsidy Totals by County
$ 647,632
$ 842,815

Not only is this program crucial to California’s $36 billion agricultural economy it is paramount to California’s fight against greenhouse gas emissions. A Purdue University study estimates that every acre of farmland pulls an estimated 0.107 tons of CO2 from the air, which is over 1.7 million tons of carbon absorbed by the 16.4 million acres of farmland protected by the Williamson Act. It seems more than counterproductive to cut a proven program that helps California’s fight against global warming.

Increasing property taxes on farmers and ranchers will only further the economic burden the agricultural sector is facing. Numerous regulations are already burdening family farmers and ranchers making it difficult for them to stay in business. California farmers and ranchers produce 25 percent the food and fiber for the entire nation. Protecting agriculture will assure that farming and ranching stays economically viable for decades to come.

According to recent studies every minute of every day, we lose two acres of agricultural land to development. Farmland can only be paved over once; our government does not need to speed up the process. ■

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