Land Conservation – At What Cost?

Written By: Lex McCorvey
Published: June 1, 2012


California’s most valuable land conservation program, the California Land Conservation Act of 1965 (CLCA) or Williamson Act (WA) may face new fees at the county level and new challenges in the months ahead.

On June 12 at 2 p.m., the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to review and consider adopting new administrative fees designed to offset the county costs to assess and review WA lands on an annual basis. The $315 in new fees for a Type I contract (for crop lands) or $124 for a Type II contract (for pasture or open space lands) would be charged on each parcel enrolled in the WA. Last month, county officials estimated their cost to administer the WA at about $550,000 annually. Ironically, last fall, the county estimated the same costs at a little over $300,000. We are not sure which costs to believe, but both seem exorbitant. Farm Bureau has made repeated requests to work with the County to see how we might be able to reduce costs and streamline state-mandated reviews.

Should WA contract holders pay fees to have their property reviewed annually? Many pasture- based grazing lands have always been used for grazing. Nothing changes and grazing livestock is the highest and best use. So why an annual fee for lands where there is no reasonable expectation that anything would change? Farm Bureau has learned that some WA landowners are saving as little as $16 per year per parcel. Paying an annual fee that exceeds the tax savings might give property owners reason to be alarmed. Some may want to contact the Sonoma County Assessor to find out exactly how much they are really saving by having their parcels in the WA.

Since the inception of the WA more than 40 years ago, each county in California has paid for these annual administrative costs as part of their commitment to local land conservation. Those annual reviews resulted in reassessment of parcels and additional tax income from the lands based on productivity. For example, increased grape tonnage per acre, and price per ton, received by growers must be reported to the assessor’s office. This often results in more tax income for the county—revenue that is not generally applied to the administrative costs.

To some, when they speak of the WA, they simply see farmers and ranchers getting a property tax break. Others have suggested that the beleaguered WA is all about money or tax dollars in a difficult economic environment. The debate centers on whether the county can justify using local funding for the WA in the wake of losing $430,000 in state subvention funding that offset lost property tax dollars.

The Board of Supervisors has repeatedly spoken of their support for economic development. In an austere economic environment, it makes no economic sense to take aim at the most valued industry that drives our economic engine. That would not be a good economic development strategy.

Agriculture is the foundation of Sonoma County economy. Substantial revenues and benefits are derived by the county and the public from the multi-billion dollar farming, agri-tourism and wine industry.

We can’t ignore the fact that our diverse agricultural industry, quality of locally produced and processed products along with our world class wine industry has put us on the world map. It is estimated that the wine industry alone generates more than $10 billion annually to the local economy. Agri-tourism is a major reason why 7.5 million visitors spent more than $1.27 billion in Sonoma County in 2009.

This does not include the millions of dollars paid by farmers on high-valued crops like wine grapes, annual taxes on owned farm equipment, new fire and septic fees, and dozens of other regulatory fees. By all accounts the agricultural sector has contributed more than its fair share of taxes and fees to the state and county.

However, the WA should not be measured in tax dollars alone.

A strong agricultural economy delivers benefits for everyone in the community. Agriculture is responsible for job creation, service sector businesses, and millions of dollars in philanthropic support of community events, non- profit groups, the arts, education and much more.

WA property owners have invested millions of dollars to manage their land and are the original conservationists. They engage in stewardship, protection of our water resources and wildlife habitat, provide invasive weed control and manage pests that can have a devastating impact on our environment, forests, urban gardens and natural resources.

Local farms produce locally-grown food and fiber that also benefits everyone in the community. Throw in the public benefit from open space and scenic corridors and one begins to realize the connectivity of how the WA is our most valuable land protection program.

To small farms or those with marginal farm income, the WA means a great deal. With land values and production costs well above national averages, increased fees or elimination of the WA will cause local small farms to dwindle into obscurity with no recourse but to sell the farm. Fewer farms mean’s less farm diversity and reduces the prospects of farm related tax revenues for a cash strapped county.

But is the WA a bargain? Is it worth investing public tax dollars to protect this program?

In Sonoma County, 31%, or approximately 295,000 acres of land are protected under the WA and many of them since the early 1970’s. Because of assessment restrictions enacted under California’s Prop 13, the county would receive about $4 million in property tax revenue without the WA. Under the WA, the taxpayers’ investment in land conservation is roughly $13.56 per acre.

By comparison, the voter-approved quarter cent sales tax that supports the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has protected roughly 85,000 acres at a cost of $283,000,000 or $3,330 per acre.  Reasonable people may disagree about which program gives us more bang for our buck Add insult to injury: the latter may also include publicly-funded costs for ongoing maintenance, management, capital improvements and administration of those protected lands in perpetuity (forever, folks!), the reality is that it will drive added costs into the millions of dollars—and that is in the near future.

While Farm Bureau is understandably concerned about the negative impacts of the proposed additional fees, we also are concerned about two other important parts of the WA debate.

In 2011, the County suspended acceptance of new WA contracts, even though they readily admit that there are few new applicants. From a land conservation perspective I believe that we should be encouraging new WA contracts for working farms to support agriculture so they can stay viable for the long run. From an economic development perspective, that long term viability has the potential to generate even more tax revenues.

Lastly, this fall, the County will once again consider support and funding for the WA in 2013. There is clear and undisputable evidence that this continues to be our most valuable land conservation program and an ongoing economic benefit to the county.

We ask landowners, members of the public, and conservation groups to step forward and support the ongoing commitment by the county to support the WA without enacting new fees, which could further hamstring an over-burdened industry.

Urge the Board of Supervisors to continue their support of the WA in 2013 and allow new WA contracts for working farms that need a fighting chance.

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