A bill that would save a San Diego County flower grower $139,000 in back taxes while lifting an "agricultural preserve" development ban on part of his property was approved Wednesday by the Senate Local Government Committee.
The bill by Assemblyman Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad) allows coastal counties with over 500,000 population to clear the way for development by permitting landowners to remove land from the agriculture preserve designation without paying the statutory tax penalties. The bill will allow the successful "Carlsbad Car Country" complex to expand onto land that would otherwise be locked in an agricultural preserve designation under the state's Williamson Act for another nine years.
The committee approved Frazee's bill, 4 to 1, despite objections raised by state Sen. Rose Ann Vuich (D-Dinuba) that it is a "special favor" for San Diego County flower grower Paul Ecke and a bad precedent likely to be copied elsewhere.
However, Frazee, who was mayor of Carlsbad when the city and Ecke contracted in 1975 to place the property in a tax-sheltered agricultural preserve, defended the measure and denied it is a tax break for Ecke.
Frazee said the 38 acres being taken out of the agricultural preserve to allow expansion of the complex of new car dealerships is being replaced by "better land from a standpoint of productive quality."
"If he paid a cancellation fee, it would be like double taxation," added Frazee. "No one really wants to do that."
Under the state's Williamson Act, enacted by the Legislature to make it economically feasible to retain prime agricultural land in rapidly developing areas, landowners are taxed at a lower rate if they agree to keep their property as open space or in agricultural production at least 10 years. Under current law, Ecke could lift the development ban on his property by either:
- Paying the taxes he would have paid had the contract never been entered, an estimated $139,000.
- Giving notice on the contract's anniversary that he does not intend to renew it, in which case it could be developed in nine years.
"My concern is that there is already a way that this property owner can get out of the Williamson Act," complained Vuich.
The cancellation fee "is the strongest part of the Williamson Act to begin with," she added. "I don't like tampering with the . . . act and setting a precedent to weaken it."
The potential impact of Frazee's bill, which is enthusiastically supported by local Carlsbad officials, but opposed by the state Department of Conservation, is unclear.
As written, the bill, which sets out a number of conditions, affects only coastal zone property in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties.
But committee consultant Peter Detwiler said the bill may have little application outside Carlsbad, one of few coastal cities that ever entered Williamson Act contracts.
In Los Angeles County, the major agricultural preserves are on Catalina Island. In Orange County, the agricultural preserves are in unincorporated territory. No coastal Orange County city has entered any agricultural preserve contracts.
The City of Carlsbad entered the agricultural preserve contract with Carltas, Ecke's flower-growing firm, Dec. 16, 1975, a city official said.
Frazee said the Carlsbad City Council, the San Diego County Farm Bureau and local conservation groups all support his bill.
"This bill was authored only after a great deal of consultation with all interested parties," Frazee said.