While it has led to an outcry from rural counties and agricultural circles, in the scheme of things $28 million is relatively little money both from the standpoint of balancing the budget and a standpoint of popular outcry.
The loss of over a million comes on top of all the other budget crunches and cuts.
Senator Lois Wolk:
“This measure really is critical to agriculture in California. Keeping land in agricultural use has been very difficult and very costly for us.”
The Senator told NPR:
“This is not the first time the governor has tried to cut the Williamson Act. He’s tried to do it two other times since I’ve been in the legislature and we’ve been able to fight back. However, this year given the budget, we weren’t able to be successful. I think it’s important to try to reform the Williamson act…to strengthen it…”
What is the impact of this loss? That depends on who you ask. Some argue that the end of the contracts will push property taxes higher and drive smaller growers off the land.
Others however, argue that while it will hurt farmland preservation in California, it is not as serious as some contend. They argue that the land in Williamson contracts is too far away from existing development to be endanger and that local governments have other tools they can use to fight development.
But others have countered that the rising taxes will force smaller growers and sink those farms who are already working with thin profit margins.
Robert Ramming, a Yolo County resident with land between Woodland and Davis, is one of those especially vulnerable. He told both the Sacramento Bee and Davis Enterprise that if the property taxes go up, people like him will not be able to survive.
Mr. Ramming told NPR last week:
“On the land portion of our property taxes we’re paying about a thousand dollars a year. If we didn’t have the tax protection, then I guess oh, we’d be at triple that. Possibly six times that. And, we’re a shoestring operation so it would eat up about 30 to 40-percent of our profits…”
The Sacramento Bee reported that most of the rural counties preferred not to cancel these contracts however, but they may not have the money to keep the program going. You are talking about small rural counties like Glenn County, Colusa, Tehama and other possibly losing near $1 million.
According to the California State Association of Counties (CSAC):
“The Williamson Act is our most cost effective incentive-based farm and ranch land conservation tool.”
CSAC spokeswoman Sarah Jimenez said:
“Counties still have to honor Williamson Act contracts. Counties just will not receive the backfill the state has provided them for the agreements with property owners.”
In Yolo County there has been a strong will to preserve agricultural land and maintain the rural character of the county. There seems to be the will in place at least so far to maintain the Williamson Act and the contracts.
However, the county has already cut $24 million from its budget and is now facing an additional $11.4 million in cuts which will push the total cuts to half of the general fund budget.
The state took about $3.3 million from the county in the form of Prop 1A money and on top of that over one million in cuts to the Williamson Act.
It was just in May that Senator Wolk was working to pass measures to strengthen the Williamson act and its protection of open space and agricultural land with Assemblymember Mariko Yamada as the principle Assembly coauthor.
Senate Bill 715 sought to reform the Williamson Act addressing concerns from critics who claim that the program is being abused by landowners who enter into preservation contracts with intentions of using the land for non-agricultural purposes such as development. The measure would have increased local enforcement authority over contract compliance requiring proof of agricultural income for land under contract.
Said Senator Wolk at that time:
“It is critical that we take steps to ensure long-term conservation of California’s valuable agricultural and open-space land, providing strong and consistent state and local enforcement to protect the significant investment the people of this state have made in this program. We need to make sure the Williamson Act lives up to its intended purposes.”
County Supervisor Jim Provenza testified on the bill:
“This measure really is critical to agriculture in California. Keeping land in agricultural use has been very difficult and very costly for us, and the money that we receive from subventions is just essential. But we recognize that there is a need to tighten up the Williamson Act and protect it, not just the subventions, but its constitutionality. That’s what this bill is designed to do. Looking into the future, this bill will enable Yolo County and other agricultural counties throughout the state to keep land in agricultural use. Given the amount of land that is going out of farming in this state on a daily basis, this measure is sorely needed.”
While Counties such as Yolo will struggle and keep agricultural land protections in place, there is little doubt that ag land and open space will come under increasing fiscal pressure should this crisis in California continue. Yolo County has fought long and hard to resist urban development and the sprawl that we have seen in recent years throughout the I-80 Corridor. That fight has become more difficult and places a greater need for the leaders in the county to work for ways to help our agricultural industry survive.
This is a big concern for Davis which just two years ago had to fight a possible move by the county to develop specific properties on its borders. The loss of revenue from the Williamson Act of course is small compared to the overall economic downturn in this county, which as mentioned earlier has cost the county around one-half of its general fund budget. The city of Davis has helped to prevent additional county generated growth on its boundaries through the pass-through agreement which passes through a portion of money from the redevelopment (which has also been raided by the state) to the county in exchange for control over land use decisions in the city’s growth area. Will the suspension of the Williamson Act put this in jeopardy? Right now, the answer is probably no, given the make up of the current board of the Supervisors with three pretty solid votes against county imposed growth on Davis. But in the coming years that could change.
It has been demonstrated a number of times that in the long term residential growth does not bring in revenue. But since it possible brings in huge profits for the developers, deals could be cut between the county and developers that might make fiscal sense if the county cannot fiscally recover from this downturn. Again, the Williamson Act is only a very small portion of this puzzle, but it is yet another loss of revenue for the county and in the long term there is no telling how that will play itself out.
The bottom line is that there is a sense of complacency amongst Davis residents following the resounding defeat of the efforts by the county to even study the possibility of development on the Davis city edge. There seems a belief that the pass-through agreement will protect Davis. This belief probably flies in the face of what will be extreme growth pressures in the coming decade. Residents of Davis who wish to limit growth on the periphery ought to at least be aware of the forces that are going to come to bear on the county to develop more agricultural land and we as a community need to look toward ways to increase and improve upon the business and economic aspect of our rural and agricultural heritage.
—David M. Greenwald reporting