Winery permits and Williamson Act

What is the status of Williamson Act tax subsidies for
agriculture in South County? Do you foresee any changes in the next
two years?
Q. What is the status of Williamson Act tax subsidies for agriculture in South County? Do you foresee any changes in the next two years?

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to an issue that I know is important to the farming and ranching communities in South County: The Williamson Act minimizes the property tax costs for agricultural-related businesses. This is especially helpful in a time when it’s increasingly difficult to be financially viable in farming and ranching operations in Santa Clara County.

However, as if things weren’t tough enough already, the state has suspended Williamson Act subventions for two years. This means the county will not be receiving any reimbursement for lost property taxes on Williamson Act contracted lands.

Subventions have been dwindling in recent years as the state looked for ways to help balance its budget. For example, our recent subvention history was $351,000 for Fiscal Year (FY) 2005-06; $343,395 for FY 2006-07; $341, 843 for FY 2007-08; $295,544 for FY 2009-10 and $9.27 (yes NINE dollars and twenty-seven cents!) for FY 2010-11.

Last year, Senate Bill (SB) 863 was passed and then repealed. The bill would have allowed local jurisdictions whose subvention payments were low, to reduce a landowner’s property tax relief by 10% in exchange for reducing for one year, (from 10-9 years), the contract term. It was at this meeting when farmers and ranchers let the Board know of their reliance on the WA.

After extensive public comments and staff reports at the Dec. 14, 2010 meeting, the Board voted not to participate. SB863 was strongly opposed by the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau and I’m proud to say that I led the effort to oppose any changes to the Williamson Act.

Q. During the campaign, you became well aware of the challenges – some seemingly insurmountable and very expensive – for South County wineries regarding building and/or expansion plans. What tangible progress has been made in this area?

My experiences with growers and operators in South County were some of the most memorable moments during the campaign. I learned that South County wines can more than hold their own against any throughout the state. I also learned there was an opportunity to promote agri-tourism in the area. This will raise awareness of the region through tourism, employ more people and increase business opportunities.

That makes the timing of this question great, because there is a meeting on Monday, Aug. 22 designed to address this exact issue. All winery owner/operators and wine growers in unincorporated Santa Clara County have been invited to discuss these concepts with planning staff and to provide feedback and additional ideas.

Armed with this information, staff will draft zoning amendments, conduct additional outreach meetings, and bring proposed changes to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. In recent months, there have been a number of activities which I hope will benefit agricultural uses. The Planning Department recently completed exhaustive comparative research regarding the zoning regulations, classifications of wineries and permissions for development in a dozen or so vineyard-rich areas of the state.

Over the past two years, planning staff have reconfigured the permit processes to make them as efficient as possible. More recently, the Planning Department has expanded the “express permit process” to provide over-the-counter permits for certain activities and they have developed better “common language” guidance for use of agricultural-exempt buildings including winery/vineyard related purposes. The Planning Department is currently processing a major agricultural project, using a new team review and concurrent processing approach that may be expanded in the future. I am encouraged that the planning staff is working hard to be as business friendly as possible, considering that the parameters of state law don’t always allow for flexibility.

Again, thank you for asking your questions and I look forward to meeting those interested in supporting South County wineries on Monday, Aug. 22 at the Coyote Grange Hall (8140 Monterey Highway – between Morgan Hill and San Jose) at

7 p.m. As always, you can reach me at 408-299-5010.

County Supervisor Mike Wasserman wants to hear from you. Just email a question – with your name and contact info or anonymously if you must – and he’ll answer in his new monthly column. Send an email with your question to [email protected]

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