Tax Break Extension

Farm community blasts proposal that would allow homeowners 3
years to build ag operation
Gilroy – South County farmers are criticizing a plan that would allow the owners of rural home sites three years to establish a legitimate farming operation to preserve a farm-related property tax break.

Commercial farmers say encouraging backyard gardeners and hobby farmers to undertake money-making agricultural enterprises so they can keep a tax break and build houses could cause ecological disasters.

“I have some big concerns about that because commercial agriculture is not something that people should get into lightly,” said Jenny Derry, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau. “I feel like people trying to establish agricultural use in three years won’t be serious about it. They’ll just be doing it to get a building permit. We don’t need hobby farmers raising crops that are not properly cared for and spreading diseases to their neighbors.”

The idea, proposed by Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage, will be considered today by the full board. It is the latest wrinkle in the county’s three-year effort to reform the way it handles the Williamson Act, a state law that provides a generous property tax break in exchange for keeping land in agricultural production.

Of the county’s 3,000 Williamson parcels, almost 1,200 are either too small to qualify for the tax break or are not farmed, and their owners are saving thousands each year. According to tax records, estates in Hayes Valley in San Martin save as much as $5,000 annually in property taxes. The owners of a vacant 18-acre lot in Gilroy saved more than $30,000 last year.

But since the county began monitoring Williamson properties three years ago, many landowners have not been able to get a building permit because they do not farm. Gage said his plan is a way to ensure fairness as the county prepares to nullify the contracts of hundreds of landowners who are not involved in farming. Without the chance to install a farming operation, he said, they’ll be forced to wait the nine years it takes for a Williamson contract to expire before they can build a house.

The farm community’s biggest fear is that once landowners have developed their property they will neglect or abandon their crops, giving rise to pests and diseases that could damage the crops of legitimate farmers. An abandoned orchard, for example, could cause an outbreak of shot-hole borers that could destroy trees in nearby orchards. Farmers also worry that even well-intentioned amateur farmers will not use pesticides and fertilizers correctly.

“Most of the general population thinks that to be a farmer is like growing something in your backyard,” said Judy Bonino, who owns Gilroy’s LJB Farms with her husband, Louie. “It’s not like that at all. It’s a very fine science. You need to have the ability to nurture the ground and allow the ground to produce food. The majority of the public has no idea how to do that.”

Pete Aiello, an owner of Uesugi Farms, said the plan will be acceptable only if it includes rigorous training and education programs.

“If they’re not practicing correct stewardship, there’s a concern that we’ll have a fly problem or some other infestation,” Aiello said. “It’s critical that if John Q. Public wants to start farming that there’s an education program so they do it right.”

The plan calls for the equivalent of 1.25 full-time staff people to monitor the progress of an estimated 100 property owners who county planners believe will try to install farm operations on their property, but it does not include educational programs. The staff positions will likely be financed with an as-yet undetermined fee assessed to the landowners.

County Agriculture Commissioner Greg Van Wassenhove said that the consequences of abandoned and neglected crops are considerable, but he does not believe an influx of inexperienced farmers will make it tougher for his agency to control pest outbreaks. State law, he said, gives him the authority to order property owners to clear away unused fields.

“I think we’re prepared,” Van Wassenhove said. “I think the [plan] adequately addresses enforcement and monitoring to minimize the risk of abandoned or neglected crops.”

And Patrick Troy, with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, a Salinas non-profit that helps develop small organic farms, said he believed the fears of commercial farmers are rooted more in economics than environmental concerns.

“I could list 100 other uses that would have a greater impact on the land,” Troy said. People who are trying to make a profit will learn quickly. I think a lot of people who have had success in farming would rather shut the door and not let someone else come in.”

Supervisors will discuss Williamson Act guidelines at 2pm, in the Board of Supervisors Chambers, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.

About the Williamson Act

The Williamson Act is a 1965 state law that provides a property tax break for farmers. Today, more than three years after a state audit found that Santa Clara County has never properly administered the law, county supervisors are poised to adopt new rules ensuring that only legitimate farmers are covered. Of the county’s 3,000 Williamson parcels, nearly 1,200 either have no agriculture or do not meet the law’s minimum size requirements of 10 acres for prime land, which supports most row crops and orchards, and 40 for non-prime land, typically used for ranching.

Highlights of the new Ordinance

• Definition of Commercial Agriculture

1. At least 75 percent of the land of parcels that meet size requirements must be dedicated to farming.

2. Parcels smaller than the minimum size requirements must produce annual income of $3,500 for prime or $2,00 for non-prime.

• Compatible Development

1. Houses and other incidental structures as defined in state law allowed only if land is in agricultural production.

2. Development may cover only 10 percent of the parcel and may not exceed five acres.

• Non-renewal

1. By the end of 2006, all parcels below the minimum size requirements will be non-renewed. The Williamson contracts will be in place for an additional nine years, during which time property taxes will rise to market value based on the year the parcel was purchased. All regulations remain in place until the contract expires.

2. Property owners can protest non-renewals. Doing so automatically delays a property tax increase for three years. Landowners who want to install farm operations will have three years to do so.

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