Monday, March 19 , 2018, 1:46 pm | Fair 63º


Local News

State Cuts Could Have Vast Effect on Local Agricultural Land, Open Space

The budget eliminates millions of dollars in subvention payments allotted to counties and private landowners under the Williamson Act

A quick drive up the coast lined with unspoiled rolling hills and vineyards reveals the obvious: Santa Barbara County puts a high value on open space and agriculture. But cuts are looming for a program some say has helped California counties protect open space and agriculture land from development for the past 45 years.

The California Land Conservation Act of 1965, commonly known as the Williamson Act, allows local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners as long as they restrict the use to open space or agricultural use. The landowners receive property tax assessments according to farming and open space rates, as opposed to full-market values, and the state reimburses counties for lost tax revenues through annual subvention payments.

Last budget year, $10 million went back into payments, but the upcoming year won’t have anything allotted to the payments.

“The budget eliminates the current-year appropriation for Williamson Act subventions and does not provide ongoing state funding,” the budget document states. “The program will thus be a local program.  Funding provided from the redevelopment agencies tax shift could help counties continue this program on their own.”

The absence of those payments has some worried about the program’s future.

“Without subvention funds, this program is really in jeopardy,” said Willy Chamberlin, a cattle rancher and former county supervisor.

Chamberlin owns an 8,500-acre ranch north of Los Olivos, which the family has owned since 1929 and is among the biggest parcels for agriculture in the county. Chamberlin said the Williamson Act has allowed them to maintain their ranch with affordable tax rates — without which it would be impossible to afford. The ranch was assessed based on the value of a neighboring ranch, before the Williamson Act was issuing subvention payments, and the payments were what kept it feasible for Chamberlin’s family to keep the ranch.

“We would have had to sell,” he said. “There’s no way that cattle and grazing will cover the tax bill in Santa Barbara County.”

Chamberlin’s grandfather came west in the 1860s and purchased various tracts of land throughout Southern California.

“We’d love to still be in farming” on those parcels, Chamberlin said, but they were eventually developed because of cost and placement near developing cities.

“I don’t think Santa Barbara County is very concerned by the lack of subventions,” he said.

Chamberlin said he thinks that’s the case because most of the acreage in the county’s Williamson Act program are classified non-prime land, which gets $2 an acre in state funds vs. the $5 if acreage is considered prime.

Santa Barbara County received about $650,000 in subvention funds from the state in 2005, according to a survey conducted by the California State Association of Counties.

“That’s reasonably low ... compared to the benefits of land use restriction,” Chamberlin said, adding that if the act is done away with, larger parcels such as his would be forced to subdivide. He said he’s also concerned at movement statewide, and hopes other counties choosing to opt out of the program won’t weaken it statewide.

Environmentalists also have backed the program. Locally, the Environmental Defense Center has been involved with the county’s various revisions of the act over the years.

“We definitely view the Williamson Act as an invaluable tool for preservation and open space,” said Nathan Alley, EDC staff attorney.

The organization’s preference is that the properties be permanently dedicated to conservation; Williamson Act contracts are generally for a 10-year period, though some can be for 20 years.

“The bottom line is that the program is worth funding,” Alley said. “The potential loss of funding could mean very serious consequences.”

Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr said she’s sorry to see the program not funded, but that it would be even worse to take the program off the books. 

The program has been “touch and go” on a year-by-year basis, Farr said, so the county doesn’t count on the money in its budgeting process.

“That way, it’s a happy surprise when we do get it,” she said, adding that most likely would be the case for this year’s budget as well.

If the state abandoned the program altogether, Farr said she felt the county would try to find the money to support the tax cuts.

“When it’s come up at the board, there seems to be very strong support,” she said, and at this point, the county is still accepting new contracts.

The importance of the agricultural industry, food security and sustainability all come up when Farr talks about keeping the Williamson Act alive in her district.

“It’s too important to let go of,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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