Williamson Act mess must fall to supervisor and staff

The recent Williamson Act meeting held in South County didn’t go
well. Santa Clara County, due to its lax enforcement of Williamson
Act rules, is now in a world of hurt, as are many homeowners with
Williamson Act property tax reductions.
The recent Williamson Act meeting held in South County didn’t go well. Santa Clara County, due to its lax enforcement of Williamson Act rules, is now in a world of hurt, as are many homeowners with Williamson Act property tax reductions.

The state audited the county in 2002 and discovered a situation that deputy county counsel Lizanne Reynolds described best.

“The county has not properly administered the Williamson Act for many, many years,” Reynolds said at the meeting. “We handed out contracts like candy, we didn’t enforce them, and we got busted.”

Homeowners relied on the county’s word, or a real estate agent’s assurances, that they qualified for the generous property tax break reserved for agricultural enterprises and specific types of open space. Officials turned a blind eye to property owners who were out of compliance with even the county’s lax rules.

Now that the county’s been “busted,” that situation must change, and no one is happy about it. Property owners face penalties and sharp hikes in land taxes. Real estate agents have to be worried about lawsuits from their clients who relied on their advice.

And Santa Clara County taxpayers ought to be worried about lawsuits from both groups as well as action from the state if the county can’t get it’s Williamson Act mess cleaned up, pronto.

The county has known about this mess for nearly three years and apparently kept hoping that it would go away.

It hasn’t.

It’s time for leadership on this difficult issue. District One County Supervisor Don Gage must bring his staff’s full attention to this thorny issue. His district is by far the most affected by the Williamson Act debacle; that fact, combined with his considerable influence and respect, make him the logical choice to tackle this mess.

This really isn’t a problem for which the county agriculture commissioner should be the point man.

Gage has taken on politically risky issues before – such as the animal ordinance and homelessness – and we’re confident that he can use his connections, his political savvy and his common sense to find an equitable solution to this problem.

The solution will be multi-faceted, and speed is of the essence.

First, the county must come up with clear, easily enforceable rules for Williamson Act eligibility – and there must be a spot-check system in place to ensure those rules are followed.

Next, Gage must negotiate with the state – or call on County Assessor Larry Stone to do so – for amnesty for out-of-compliance property owners so that they don’t pay hefty penalties for the years that they relied on the county’s bad advice. If that isn’t possible, the county itself must accept liability for back taxes.

One the policy is in place, property owners who are out of compliance should immediately begin to pay their fair share of property taxes. That’s important to non-Williamson Act property owners who are essentially subsidizing out-of-compliance properties.

An equitable solution is important to all county taxpayers who don’t want to foot the bill to fight costly legal battles from disgruntled Williamson Act property owners understandably angry about the county’s possibly negligent administration of the tax break program.

We know this issue is difficult. That’s why it has festered and grown with nearly three years of neglect.

For the sake of Williamson Act property owners and taxpayers throughout the county, we urge Gage to take the lead immediately in cleaning up the county’s Williamson Act mess.

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