State cuts imperil program to preserve farmland

Strolling through emerald groves of orange trees, Tulare County citrus grower Allen Ishida said he reckons he'll have to sell some of his 270 acres to pay higher property taxes should his county pull out of a threatened farmland preservation program.

Thirty miles down California 99, third-generation almond grower Don Davis was making similar calculations.

Davis figures he could rip out rows of almond trees stretching over 480 acres near McFarland in Kern County and sell the land, if necessary. He'd have no choice, Davis said. His property taxes would probably triple from $44,000.

Across the San Joaquin Valley, the richest agricultural region in the nation, the farmers who produce milk, grow crops and raise beef cattle are nervous about the popular Williamson Act program going belly up.

"We don't want to see it go away because it gives us the ability to just be farmers and to be billed like farmers," Davis said.

Tulare, Kern and other counties are facing tough decisions on how to save the program after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated $28 million last month for the Williamson Act, widely viewed as the state's most significant land-management tool.

Created in 1965, the act allows counties to enter into rolling contracts with farmers and ranchers to keep agricultural land in production for at least 10 years. In return, counties value their lands in ways that reduce property taxes by up to 90%.

For 38 years, the state has contributed some of the annual property tax revenue that counties lose. Loss of those payments this year is spurring several counties to assess whether they can afford to stay in the program.

At stake are about 16.5 million acres -- more than half of the state's farmland -- protected from development through Williamson Act contracts.

Kern County has 1.7 million acres enrolled in the program, and Fresno County is close behind at 1.5 million acres. Tulare County rounds out the top three with more than a million acres, much of it dairy farms that make the county the top milk-producing region in the nation.

In Southern California, where housing tracts far outnumber row crops, loss of the state funding matters less because there's not much farmland left to protect. Imperial County has the most land in Williamson Act contracts in the seven-county area, more than 135,000 acres, followed by Ventura County with a little less than 129,000 acres. Orange County, once a center of citrus cultivation, has a little more than 8,000 acres of protected cropland.

Supervisors in some counties are saying they will wait to see if a lawsuit challenging the governor's actions is successful. Other counties have reluctantly agreed to absorb the funding loss for now.

Tulare, the second-largest farm county in the state, stands out because its leaders are considering canceling its Williamson Act contracts, although supervisors want to find a way to save them.

John Gamper of the California Farm Bureau Federation said loss of these protected lands would be a disaster for the state's agricultural business. If the land valuations rise to market rates, the spike in property taxes would probably cause more farmers to sell their land, he said.

"We've lost 20% of our prime farmland in about one generation due to population pressures," said Gamper, who analyzes land use and taxation. "It's not a good trend, and the state is continuing to grow."

In Visalia, Lindsay, Exeter and other Tulare County farm towns, nearly everyone's job depends in one way or another on agriculture, said Jim Sullins, director of the University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resources office in Tulare.

"It's not enough to preserve ag lands," he said. "We have to preserve the ability to farm."

But it's also a poor region, where almost a quarter of residents live in poverty and the median income is $34,000. An older population of established farmers, many of them descendants of Dust Bowl refugees, is slowly being replaced by younger and poorer families with low-paying jobs, according to the state Department of Finance.

Members of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors say that meager tax base leaves them with little choice but to cancel Williamson Act contracts or find a way to replace the $3.4 million in state money that the county will lose this year.

Board members said they don't expect the governor or the Legislature to restore the money soon.

But they also said they didn't want to simply let 9,750 contracts expire. Even if they did, it would take 10 years for the lands to reset at their market values, county Chief Planner David Claxton told supervisors.

Supervisors decided to weigh another option, forming an assessment district to replace the state payments. A district that included all landowners enrolled in the Williamson Act could potentially do that, Claxton said.

Assessments would be based on a farmer's gross annual income, a formula that would give farmers a break in years when their crops produce less income, Claxton said.

Such a district would produce relatively stable funding and allow the county to continue with its Williamson Act contracts indefinitely, the planner said.

Supervisors asked staff to meet with farmers and ranchers to discuss the plan.

And just last week the board stopped taking applications for new Williamson Act contracts.

"We could control our own destiny and our own future," Supervisor Mike Ennis said.

Whether farmers will agree remains to be seen.

Gamper, of the California Farm Bureau Federation, was skeptical.

"Why would a landowner continue to participate in a program if the rules have changed and all of a sudden a different tax is being imposed on them?" he said.

Ishida, both a grower and a member of the Board of Supervisors, says he can see both sides.

An assessment district, in a sense, "lets the state off the hook," Ishida said. Many farmers, already worried about higher water costs, will object to yet another expense, he said.

But growers in the long run will save dollars if they are able to preserve their Williamson Act protections, he said.

"In the real world, the state is in such a financially tenuous position that I don't think they have a lot of choices," said Ishida, who has taken himself out of the county board's deliberations because his own land is enrolled.

On the other hand, if the county were to cancel its contracts, Ishida said, it would almost certainly accelerate the disappearance of farmland.

"Some of the older farmers will say that's enough and sell off," he said.

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Farmland preservation

The Williamson Act, through contracts with farmers that lower their property taxes, protects about half the state's agricultural acreage from development.

The 10 counties with the most land protected by the Williamson Act:

County: Acreage

Kern: 1,707,006

Fresno: 1,500,303

Tulare : 1,098,538

Tehama: 800,003

San Luis Obispo : 794,394

Monterey: 763,396

Stanislaus: 691,048

Kings : 679,118

San Benito: 583,522

Santa Barbara: 550,777

Southern California farmland preservation

County: Acreage

Imperial : 135,737

Ventura : 128,993

San Diego : 62,054

Riverside : 59,895

Los Angeles : 40,031*

Orange: 8,134

San Bernardino : 4,649

* Not protected by Williamson Act but through other enforceable restrictions.

Source: California Natural Resources Agency, Williamson Act 2008 Status Report

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