Budget Crunch Imperils Protections for Farmland

Times Staff Writer

A little-noticed line in Gov. Gray Davis' proposed budget could jeopardize a program that has protected farmland and other open space from development for nearly four decades.

On the chopping block is $39 million that has been paid to counties -- encouraging them to write contracts with farmers and others to block land development. That state money -- relied on by counties since 1971--makes up for the lower property taxes they receive under the 1965 Williamson Act when land is left undeveloped.

The dollar amount is chump change compared to the state's behemoth budget gap -- and less than a tenth what local governments stand to lose from vehicle license fees the state is snatching.

But farm advocates, smart-growth proponents and environmentalists say the implications of gutting the program are drastic: If counties lose the incentive to participate in the voluntary land set-asides, it could leave 16.3 million acres of the state's agricultural land and open space more vulnerable to development.

Advocates note that more than half the state's prime farmland is protected under the act -- land that developers would love to grab as sprawl spreads across the Central Valley and up the Sierra Nevada's western flank.

"We think it's incredibly important to protect the integrity of the program," said John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation. Gamper testified on the matter Wednesday before the Senate Local Government Committee.

"Even Los Angeles legislators should be concerned about protecting this meager amount of funding to preserve farmland," he said. "What's to keep developers building affordable housing in your city when they can move up to the Central Valley and build houses on flat farmland?"

About 50,000 acres of farmland are gobbled up for urban uses every year. The Williamson Act has been a key tool in preventing that trend from ballooning.

Counties have been key players in making the act work, because they must sign contracts with farmers to keep land undeveloped. In turn, they accept reduced property taxes.

But counties can unilaterally bow out of the contracts, and open-space advocates fear they may do so in large numbers if the state cuts off the funds.

The 10-year term of the Williamson contracts would provide at least a temporary cushion before the land could be developed. But once expired, disorderly development and sprawl would almost certainly ensue, say proponents, who range from Republican lawmakers to farm advocates to environmentalists.

"Anything we do to make it more difficult in terms of the farmers' bottom line, the more likely it is that you hasten urban sprawl and the permanent conversion of some of the richest farmland in the world to uses other than agriculture," said state Sen. Charles Poochigian (R-Fresno). "This proposal is clearly wrongheaded."

A state Department of Finance spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.

Most affected would be the agricultural counties of the San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County tops the list, with 1.5 million acres enrolled in the program. It stands to lose $5.7 million in state property tax reimbursements, or so-called subventions. Kern County, with 811,000 acres under protection, could lose $5.3 million.

Under the Williamson Act, also known as the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, landowners receive lower assessments on properties if they agree to keep them free of development during the term of the 10-year rolling contracts, which are automatically renewed each year.

Since 1971, the state has been offsetting the loss of property taxes to counties and a handful of cities that participate in those contracts. In 1993, the amount paid out by the state per acre of protected land was raised significantly.

Since 2000, a handful of new counties have signed on, placing hundreds of thousands more acres under protection and forgoing millions of dollars in property taxes.

In the 2001-02 budget year, the state paid out nearly $39 million to 53 counties, said Erik Vink, assistant director of the Department of Conservation's Division of Land Resource Protection. All told, 16.3 million acres are protected under the contracts. The vast majority of that is farmland.

The prospective loss of state dollars to offset the reduced taxes comes as rural counties are battered by their own tight budgets and facing potentially brutal cuts in vehicle license fees.

"It's a significant reduction to us -- about 60 to 65 deputy sheriff positions," said Carolyn Fries, Fresno County budget director.

The Davis proposal, buried deep in the budget in a section on tax relief, seeks to "permanently eliminate this subvention beginning in 2003-04."

If the state follows through and kills the program, the implications go well beyond strained county coffers.

"It would come under very serious consideration by our Board of Supervisors as to whether we would even participate in the Williamson Act," Fries said. "It takes money away from other programs."

Others were less circumspect, calling the end of the tax relief program the death knell for the Williamson Act.

"It would be virtually impossible to get counties or cities to play in that particular arena again if they think that, when times get rough, the state suspends the funding," said Fred Keeley, a former assemblyman who is now executive director of the nonprofit Planning and Conservation League.

"What it is likely to do," Keeley added, "is aggravate the rampant sprawl that is converting agricultural land to suburban and retail uses ... which is antithetical to both good planning and good environmental policy."

The threat to the Williamson Act funding is reviving an alliance of diverse bedfellows who came together last year when Davis first proposed slashing the program in his 2002-03 budget. It was ultimately restored by the Legislature. But given the current budget crisis, advocates fear this time could be different.

Among those concerned is the California Futures Network, an alliance of 90 organizations that advocate land-use policies that are fiscally, socially and environmentally sound.

Agricultural lands benefit the state economically -- California provides more than half the nation's fresh fruits and vegetables. But they also act as critical buffers between wild lands and urban zones and offer wildlife benefits, said Julie Spezia, the network's state issues director.

As farmland gets broken into chunks to serve a growing number of Californians seeking to flee cities, all those goals are compromised, she said.

The Williamson Act has had a different impact in different parts of the state, said William Fulton, editor and publisher of the California Planning and Development Report. It has most effectively blocked urbanization along the Sierra foothills by granting ranchland owners an incentive to stay put.

In rapidly urbanizing zones such as Riverside and Ventura counties, it has acted as a brake, making development more orderly by forcing landowners to plan ahead by a decade.

In those areas, Fulton said, a weakened Williamson Act could have the greatest consequences.

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