Land act progress

– The task force charged with sorting out the county’s
Williamson Act policy made progress Wednesday figuring out how to
apply the law in the future, but its discussions showed once again
that it may never bring the hundreds of parcels currently out of
compliance into line.
Gilroy – The task force charged with sorting out the county’s Williamson Act policy made progress Wednesday figuring out how to apply the law in the future, but its discussions showed once again that it may never bring the hundreds of parcels currently out of compliance into line.

“I think we’ve made significant headway toward criteria for new contracts,” said Greg Van Wassenhove, agriculture commissioner of Santa Clara County. “There were some positive suggestions that appear to have a lot of support.”

But that support – for defining agriculture by land use rather than income and new reporting requirements to the county planning department and tax assessor – is limited to new contracts. Task force members warned that applying such stringent criteria to existing contracts will lead to an exodus from the act and a loss of open space in the county.

Rex Lindsay, representing property owners on Mt. Hamilton, said Wednesday that most of the owners of 250,000 acres on arid Mt. Hamilton can’t meet the income requirements the county has proposed for land owners holding Williamson contracts. Under a de facto policy being used by the planning department, applicants must show an annual income of $10,000, or $2,000 for cattle operations.

“Asking the land to do what the land can not do makes no sense,” Lindsay said. “Unless we change the climate and the soil, that’s not going to happen.”

The Williamson Act is the trade name of the California Land Conservation Act of 1965. The law gives property owners a tax break in exchange for maintaining a commercial agriculture enterprise or meeting specific open space requirements. It has strict limits on development.

A Williamson contract attaches to the land it covers and is inherited by new owners. It takes 10 years to get out of the contract, and owners who cancel can be hit with fines of 25 percent of the developed property’s market value. Either the owner or the county can non-renew the contract at any time.

Contracts are administered county by county, but the state has ultimate enforcement authority. In 2002, a state audit found major fault with the county’s oversight of the policy, criticizing in particular its habit of allowing development on small parcels that had been improperly subdivided under Williamson contracts. The county can lose the right to issue Wlliamson contracts if it does so improperly.

Lindsay contends that current contract holders should be allowed to remain in Williamson under the law’s open space provision, or by meeting any of the compatible uses allowed by the law, which include structures incidental to a farm operation such as a barn, residence or runway. Many of the land owners there graze cattle and generate little income.

But Deputy County Counsel Lizanne Reynolds said that state will not give its blessing to any contract that does not include commercial agriculture production.

“You’re not going to convince the county or the state that you can have a contract without an agriculture use,” Reynolds said. “It’s illogical to say that someone is going to get a tax break for agriculture use, but doesn’t have to have an agriculture use.”

At issue is the variety of contract that the county issued in the early days of the act. Most contracts contain a clause that allows only “agriculture and compatible” uses, but there are some that say either use may be acceptable.

“I don’t care if it’s an ‘and’ or an ‘or,’ we can’t enter into a contract that doesn’t meet the requirements of the Williamson Act,” Reynolds said. She suggested that the owners of large tracts of open space may be eligible for other tax shelters offered by the state.

At this point, there are no exit strategies for out-of-compliance owners who are development-locked. Efforts by county officials to lobby state legislators for a one-time cancellation amnesty have met resistance. But property owners at risk of expulsion may find safety in numbers.

Of the 3,000 Williamson Act parcels in the county, hundreds are out of compliance. More than 450 parcels measure fewer than five acres. More than 700 are less than 10. Planners have estimated that at least 400 parcels have no agriculture use at all, much less commercial production.

“The impact of this is huge,” said Jenny Derry, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau. “Whatever the board of supervisors decides to do is going to effect a lot of people.”

It’s up the county supervisors to adopt a policy to clean up that mess, and in addition to the political risk of a unilateral, mass non-renewal, that approach might mean too much work for the cash-strapped county.

One proposal unofficially on the table is to issue notice of non-renewal to any property owner holding fewer than 10 acres, though Reynolds said the county would have to start smaller to handle the work load. She said the first threshold may be two acres. Property owners will have the opportunity to prove their land can support a commercial agriculture enterprise.

Although non-renewing small parcels would help clean the county books, it probably won’t help the assessor’s office recoup tax revenue the county is losing to the act. It takes at least five acres for there to be a demonstrable difference between market-rate and Williamson tax assessments.

And before the county can take that step, it needs to define agriculture.

“”We need a basis if we’re going to send out that letter,” Van Wassenhove said. “No matter how you come at it, agriculture use is the common thread. How we define it will be critical.”

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