REVIEW OF ASSEMBLY BILL 1492
California House bill [Assembly Bill 1492] aims to repair Williamson Act - On paper, it seems like a way to help farmers and protect open space, but many agree it needs protection from abuse and oversight.
By JULIA HOLLISTER
For the Capital Press May 7, 2003
SACRAMENTO — On paper, the Williamson Act seems like a way to help farmers and protect open space, but many agree it needs protection from abuse and oversight.
Enacted in 1965 as the California Land Conservation Act, it is the state’s premier program for promoting development patterns and slowing the urbanization of farmland. The act allows local agencies to enter into 10-year rolling contracts with landowners to keep farmland and rangeland undeveloped.
In exchange, counties charge property tax based on productive values, not market values — $5 an acre for prime and $1 for non-prime land.
[The] 2003-04 budget threatens to eliminate the program’s funding of about $39 million a year.
And there are bushwhackers on the rangeland.
In some cases, landowners with Williamson Act contracts are putting shopping centers, residential subdivisions, or ranchettes on Williamson Act lands:
Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, authored Assembly Bill 1492 in hopes of repairing the act.
“If landowners can break their Williamson Act contracts whenever they please, the public and their legislators won’t continue to support it,” Laird said. “Why pay $39 million per year for a contract that can be broken at will by the landowner?”
His bill addresses two problems identified by the California Department of Finance in its county audits.
The first problem is that landowners are allowed to move parcel lot lines, which is appropriate in many cases – for financing, tax, or inheritance purposes.
Some landowners use the lot line provisions to facilitate non-agricultural development, such as commercial, industrial, urban residential subdivisions, or as ranchettes.
The second problem is that some landowners develop their Williamson Act lands, regardless of the contract, because the penalties aren’t sufficient to dissuade them.
“The concern is if people can just build on their land and ignore the contract, the public will lose faith in the act,” said Clyde MacDonald, assistant to Laird. “The state provides millions to reimburse counties. We are trying to close loopholes to develop the land and increase penalties when you violate the act.”
The bill passed easily out of the Assembly Agriculture and Water Committee and the next stop is the Natural Resources Committee meeting in the middle of May.
“We want the bill to be reasonable and workable for those who have Williamson Act land,” McDonald said.
“We’re trying to go after the bad actors that threaten the program and to maintain the public and farmer’s faith in the act.”
John Gamper, government affairs specialist with the California Farm Bureau Federation, said there were 16.3 million acres of Williamson Act land under contract and only three situations where material breeches were found.
He sees no connection between AB1492 and the building on contract land.
“Many times when farmland is annexed cities often don’t recognize the contracts,” he said. ‘We think higher penalties should apply to those who purposely ignore the contract and lot line adjustment.”
Currently proposed penalties are 25 percent of the value of the land and 25 percent of the value of the new construction. Under current law, abusers can pay 12 percent penalty and get out.
“Last year many suspected the governor’s elimination of the Williamson Act was budget negotiating to increase Assembly Republicans to vote for the budget,” Gamper said. “Instead he lost Democrats right out of the chute so we were surprised he came back with the cut this year.”
“We think we have strong support in the House and the Senate to save the act.”
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Red Bank Oaks Property Owners' Association