New rules for Williamson Act

San Jose
– To ensure that future Williamson Act contracts will be handled
properly, Santa Clara County Agriculture Commissioner Greg Van
Wassenhove has asked state conservation authorities to head off a
potential controversy with its newly drafted requirements.
San Jose – To ensure that future Williamson Act contracts will be handled properly, Santa Clara County Agriculture Commissioner Greg Van Wassenhove has asked state conservation authorities to head off a potential controversy with its newly drafted requirements.

“We want to make sure we get off on the right foot with new contracts,” Van Wassenhove said this week, before forwarding the proposed criteria to the California Department of Conservation. “We need to be very careful.”

Thursday, Van Wassenhove asked the DOC to make a formal ruling on whether any horse operations can be considered agribusiness under the act. That ruling is likely the last step before Van Wassenhove submits the draft requirements to county supervisors, who may adopt them as early as May 3.

There are about 3,000 parcels of land in the county under Williamson contracts. The contracts provide land owners with generous tax breaks in exchange for maintaining a legitimate agricultural enterprise or preserving specific kinds of open space, such as an endangered wetland. A change in current policy would lead to some owners losing some or all of their protection under the act. The act is administered county by county, but the DOC holds ultimate oversight.

The criteria differ from existing requirements in two major respects. Land owners will not have to meet minimum income requirements, but they must have a commercial agricultural enterprise. There will be virtually no Williamson contract signed as a means to protect open space or hold ag land in abeyance for future use.

Although the stakeholder group has now devoted the bulk of three meetings to pounding out criteria for new applicants, most public attendees are people who already have Williamson contracts and are concerned that the more restrictive criteria will be used as a way to expel current contract holders.

The biggest fears are from people who open their land to grazing cattle but don’t meet the size requirements and owners of horse stables and breeding operations.

Van Wassenhove reiterated this week that the state does not consider horse operations of any kind as ag business unless the horses are part of a cattle operation. But he did ask the DOC to consider allowing them in this county.

Jenny Derry, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, said Thursday that the unique rural-urban mix of the county should give it leeway when it come to horse breeding operations.

“The DOC should give us some latitude because Santa Clara County is different,” Derry said. “We have a lot less land than non-urban counties. Horses have always been considered livestock. Are they part of the agricultural landscape? I think the answer is yes.”

DOC Spokesman Don Drysdale said Thursday that his agency “is not aware of horses being an agriculture use per se, but if the county has a good reason, we can talk about it.”

John Gormley, a real estate agent who owns 21 acres on Finley Ridge in Morgan Hill that is used for grazing, thinks the process will end with small and medium-sized parcel owners being evicted from the act.

“It’s bad,” Gormley said. “The only people who are going to survive this are the big ranchers.”

But based on the county’s track record of lax enforcement, Gormley has little to worry about.

Existing contracts are also supposed to meet minimum land requirements, but hundreds of properties in the act have been sub-divided well below those standards. Many land owners do not have an ag operation.

Wednesday, an exchange between planning staff and a representative from the assessor’s office highlighted the county’ s inability to monitor contracts.

Each year, the county assessor is supposed to send out forms that contract holders are to fill out detailing their farming operations. The office is not sending out the forms and will not share the information it does have with county planning staff, who are supposed to enforce the act, but say they can’t.

“We’ve advised the assessor’s office that they can share the information with planning, but they’re extremely sensitive about sharing taxpayer information,” said Deputy County Counsel Lizanne Reynolds. “But let’s assume we do get the information to start monitoring. It’s extremely labor intensive and planning doesn’t have the staff to undertake those activities.”

County officials are considering evicting en mass property owners who parcels are smaller than five acres. But the county will also explore whether contract holders with open space can transfer their property under the Open Space Easement Act of 1974, as allowed under the Williamson Act.

“This other opportunity that’s out there is a really interesting possibility,” Derry said. “I would definitely support it. From an agriculture perspective, it will preserve land for future use.”

Reynolds said that the county has previously used the Open Space Easement Act as a way to preserve open space and allow some clustered housing developments. Allowing scattered properties to enter the act, which provides tax breaks similar to Williamson and has a broader definition of open space, is untested. Doing so would require the blessing of the county supervisors and may have consequences for the planning and zoning laws.

Drysdale said that to his knowledge such a transfer has never been done in the state.

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