New Williamson Plan Attacked

Idea violates spirit of the law, agency spokesperson says
Morgan Hill – The county’s latest plan to allow rural landowners to build houses on properties covered by the Williamson Act was denounced Monday by the state agency that oversees the law.

County planners and politicians want to let landowners in the Williamson Act transfer their properties to the state’s Open Space Easement Act, a law that doesn’t always provide Williamson’s generous tax break but has fewer development restrictions.

The transfer is intended to provide relief to potentially hundreds of landowners who don’t farm their land and would not be able to develop their property without paying a large fine or waiting a decade for their contract to expire. Under the county plan, those who choose to move into the open space act will be able to build immediately.

Such transfers are legal, but a spokesman for the California Department of Conservation said the plan violates the spirit of the law, which is meant to penalize contract holders who try to develop their property outside of act rules.

“We haven’t agreed to any scenario that doesn’t involve cancellations or non-renewal,” Don Drysdale said. “We have issues with anything that allows a get-out-of-jail free card and mass transfers into the open space easement. That doesn’t sound like something that would be very popular around here.”

The Williamson Act is a 1965 law that provides a tax break in exchange for maintaining an agricultural enterprise. In 2002, a DOC audit found that Santa Clara County had done a poor job of enforcing the law and created a spider’s web of illegitimate parcels. 

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.

Supervisor Don Gage, who has championed the use of the open space easement to protect property rights, said Monday that he’s inclined to ignore the state’s disapproval of the open space easements, regardless of the consequences. 

“If they want to sue us, let them sue us,” Gage said. “If they want to puff up and do their thing let them puff up. We’re trying to fix a 30-year problem and they’re not cooperating at all. They won’t give you a straight answer. They won’t put anything in writing. That’s no way to do business.”

The Williamson Act is administered county by county but ultimate oversight rests with the DOC. The agency can, among other enforcement options, revoke a county’s right to offer the contracts and refuse to pay a county’s subvention, or reimbursement for the property tax revenue lost to the act.

In January, the board of supervisors will consider a set of Williamson guidelines that were crafted over the past year by agriculture, real estate and environmental interests.

The guidelines include a method to evict hundreds of substandard parcels from the act and set new standards for determining who is and is not a legitimate farmer. In their draft form, the guidelines include a provision to allow any property five acres or larger to transfer to an open space easement. The easements would last at least 15 years.

That provision is an admission of guilt by county planners, who say they helped create the county’s Williamson mess by allowing large tracts of land to be carved into home sites while under the act. And 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 with the open space easement 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.

“We’re only talking about a couple of hundred people we’re trying to help,” he said. “We’ve got a problem that needs correcting and once it’s corrected there won’t be any more violations and everyone will be happy.”

The plan has won broad support from farmers and other landowners, but some environmental advocates have complained about the open space easement provision. Brian Schmidt, a legislative advocate with the Committee for Green Foothills, said only select properties should be allowed into the open space easement. He said the county’s plan to extend the easement contract from 10 to 15 years accomplishes little.

“We’re generally supportive of what the county is doing, but we have concerns about using the open space easement as a dumping ground to facilitate development,” Schmidt said. “Adding five years to a meaningless restriction does nothing. They should require something more restrictive.”