A Laudable Reversal

Kudos to County Supervisor Don Gage for reversing course on his
proposal to give owners of rural home sites three years to
establish agricultural operations in order to preserve their
Williamson Act tax breaks.
Kudos to County Supervisor Don Gage for reversing course on his proposal to give owners of rural home sites three years to establish agricultural operations in order to preserve their Williamson Act tax breaks.

Santa Clara County has been rightly forced by the state to bring its Williamson Act guidelines into compliance with state law. The county’s lax enforcement brought a state audit and the threat of severe penalties. More than a third of the properties in Santa Clara County currently receiving Williamson Act tax breaks don’t qualify either because the parcels are too small or because they are not farmed.

Fixing the county’s Williamson Act mess is a real headache for politicians. It’s a situation in which no matter what they do, they’re going to make lots of people unhappy. Gage’s three-year grace period proposal was an attempt to minimize the number of unhappy people, but it was a plan fraught with pitfalls.

When Gage heard the serious and valid concerns of his constituents, he changed course. That takes real political courage, and we applaud Gage for it.

We had several concerns with Gage’s original proposal. We thought it was too complicated, that it unfairly extended a decades-long grace period that out-of-compliance Williamson Act landowners had already enjoyed, that it had the potential to threaten the livelihoods of South County farmers who are in agriculture for a living instead of a tax break, that it might be out of compliance with the state’s guidelines for the Williamson Act, and that it was clearly not in the spirit of the Williamson Act.

Gage’s decision to abandon his original proposal is a victory for common sense and a refreshing display of political courage.

That said, we haven’t yet decided if we favor Gage’s replacement proposal, to help landowners who don’t qualify for Williamson Act tax breaks because their parcels are too small or not farmed to get a different tax break, the Open Space Easement Act, is a worthy one.

We urge everyone involved – farmers, environmentalists, politicians – to study the proposal. A county land-use subcommittee will take a first look on Nov. 12, and then the full board of supervisors will take up the matter on Dec. 12.

Gage was exactly right when he said, ‘”This whole issue is about compromise. 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.”

Let’s all take the time and spend the effort to rationally evaluate Gage’s latest attempt to find that delicate balance.

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