A Lifesaver for Farmlands

California has some of the most productive agricultural land in the world, but rapid population growth and unchecked development, particularly in parts of the Central Valley and coastal counties, are swallowing up this precious soil. As a result, one of the state's most important economic and natural resources is under serious threat.

To slow this trend, Gov. Pete Wilson should sign AB 724, legislation written to build on the success of the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, popularly known as the Williamson Act.

The act, named for onetime Assemblyman John Williamson, set up a voluntary program whereby counties and cities can lower the property taxes of farmland owners who agree to restrict development for up to 10 years, reserving their lands for agriculture, open space or "compatible uses."

Of the state's 52 agricultural counties, 48 participate. So do 20 cities with farm acreage within their boundaries. So far 15 million acres of prime farm- and ranchlands have been protected, and landowners are receiving about $120 million a year in tax savings.

However, some local jurisdictions have violated the spirit of the law by allowing development on these "protected" lands. By claiming that projects complied with compatible-use provisions, for example, developers were able to secure approval for construction of a mine in Tulare County and a private sewer plant in Lassen County, projects that clearly do not serve to protect farmland.

AB 724, authored by Assemblyman Byron D. Sher (D-Palo Alto), would require that cities and counties adopt or amend their compatible-use provisions to ensure that activities on Williamson Act lands not compromise agricultural viability, displace or impair agricultural operations or result in removal of adjacent lands from farming or open-space use. AB 724 gives local governments clearer guidelines to prevent overdevelopment of California's agricultural heartland. That's important, given the rapid pace at which farmland is vanishing around fast-growing cities like Fresno, Modesto and Stockton.

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