Williamson Act rules almost there

It’s good news that the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
has adopted new Williamson Act guidelines. It’s an important first
step toward cleaning up the tax-break mess that has festered for
years. However, the plan is not without its flaws.
It’s good news that the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has adopted new Williamson Act guidelines. It’s an important first step toward cleaning up the tax-break mess that has festered for years. However, the plan is not without its flaws.

Homeowners with Williamson Act contracts get a property tax break in exchange for maintaining farming operations or open space. The state audited Santa Clara County’s administration of the program a few years ago and found numerous properties that were out of compliance. State officials ordered the county to clean up the mess or face the consequences. And though it took far too long, the guidelines are out and are just in need of some refinement.

The first, and perhaps fatal, flaw with the new guidelines is the lack of enforcement. Once a parcel of land is granted a Williamson Act contract, no one at the county has the job of checking to make sure that it remains in compliance.

A law without enforcement is useless. Surely, the Board of Supervisors grasps this.

Enforcing the Williamson Act guidelines should require the addition – or the reassignment – of just one employee, and that person belongs in the county assessor’s office. The deterrent effect of enforcement, which should prevent most of the questionable contracts currently in place, plus the increased tax revenue from catching violators, ought to pay for this person’s salary and benefits.

But even if it doesn’t, add an employee responsible for enforcement is the right thing to do, for the taxpayers who subsidize the Williamson Act contracts and for those property owners in the Williamson Act who do meet its requirements.

The second flaw is those requirements. The county has adopted annual gross income requirements of $3,500 for prime farmland and $2,000 for non-prime land. These requirements exceed those in place by state law, and we can’t find a good reason for that.

We can find a reason to drop them – for example, the plight of many ranchers, who often cannot meet the $2,000 minimum for non-prime agricultural land. We need to remember that the people who we are aiming to boot from Williamson Act contracts are not legitimate farmers and ranchers who operate small businesses. The real target of the new guidelines are folks who build McMansions on small parcels and operate “faux” agricultural businesses to get a tax break.

Let’s make sure our guidelines are aimed at those folks who do not meet the spirit or the letter of the Williamson Act, and let’s enforce those guidelines.

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