Williamson Act Compromise Sought

New plan would allow landowners to switch to another state
program; Environmentalists say it protects owners at expense of
open space
San Jose – Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage reversed course Tuesday and spoke out against his own plan to allow the owners of rural home sites three years to install an agricultural operation to preserve a farm-related tax break. But in pleasing the farm community, Gage has upset environmentalists.

“I got some new information,” Gage said of his attempt to protect people about to be evicted from the Williamson Act, a state law that provides a property tax break for keeping land in agricultural production. “If you’re forced to grow crops so you can get a building permit or a tax break that’s not going to make for good stewardship of the land. It puts real farmers at risk.”

Now Gage wants to allow landowners of parcels as small as five acres, who are about to lose their tax break or unable to get a building permit, to switch to another state program designed to protect open space. It’s a move environmentalists say protects landowners at the expense of open space.

“It’s a way of circumventing Williamson Act restrictions that people are contractually obligated to fill,” said Brian Schmidt, of the Committee for Green Foothills, who helped craft proposed Williamson guidelines that allow the transfer only if a parcel is at least 10 acres. “It feels like there’s been some backsliding, like there’s been some pressure put on the county to allow those things.”

Gage had proposed the plan as a way to protect land owners caught in the slipstream of the county’s efforts to reform the way it handles the Williamson Act. 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 who bought property under Williamson contracts have not been able to get a building permit because they do not farm.

Gage said his goal is to cleanse the county of illegitimate Williamson parcels while protecting the interests of property owners whom he thinks should be allowed to build houses on their land.

His new solution, raised Tuesday at a board of supervisors meeting, is to make it easier for non-farming Williamson Act property owners to move their properties into the state’s Open Space easement Act, which provides a similar tax break, though not necessarily one as generous as Williamson.

“This whole issue is about compromise,” Gage said. “This whole process has been a delicate balancing act between what people think their property rights are and the county’s duty to uphold the law.”

State law allows the transfer, but it’s not clear if Gage’s desire to allow properties as small as five acres to receive an open space easement is legal. Tuesday, the California Department of Conservation informed the county that it is troubled by the proposed use of the Open Space Easement Act.

“I’m not sure why, if it was the possibility of parcels smaller than 10 acres,” said Jody Hall Esser of the county planning office. “It could be that it’s because we’re the first county to do this and maybe they just don’t know how to deal with this.”

County officials began wrestling with Williamson Act regulations more than three years ago, when a DOC audit found that the law wasn’t being properly enforced. The process may soon be complete.

Beginning in January, hundreds of contracts that don’t meet the law’s requirements will be nullified, a process that takes 10 years and restores the proper tax assessment to a property.

Owners of parcels that don’t meet the law’s size requirements will be allowed to stay in the act if they prove they have a legitimate farming enterprise. At least some landowners will be allowed to switch from Williamson to an open space easement.

Jenny Derry, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, who persuaded Gage to drop his farming plan, said the process continues to move in the right direction, however slowly.

“I’m very pleased. I think what happened today is a move that will protect the integrity of agriculture,” Derry said. “There are still some areas we need to address.”

What is 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.

n What’s Been Decided

Owners of legitimate parcels will receive eviction notices next year and will have an option to appeal.

n What’s Not Been Decided

• How owners of parcels smaller than size requirements can stay in the act.

• Who will be eligible to move the Open Space Easement Act.

n What’s Next

• Williamson proposals will be heard by a county land use sub-committee Nov. 16.

• Board of Supervisors will take up the act again Dec. 12.

Leave your comments