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Davis, California

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Yolo County landowners feel sting of budget crisis

Yolo County is recognized for its fields of green farmland thanks, in part, to the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, or the Williamson Act. However, California’s budget crisis cut $28 million from the Williamson Act, leaving the undeveloped countryside in jeopardy.

The Williamson Act allows property owners to form a contract with the county that gives them a special property tax rate for keeping their land as farmland or open space. The landowners’ property tax is derived from the land’s income producing capability, instead of its Proposition 13 or current market value.

If property taxes on agricultural land were increased to their current market value, many small farms would be driven out of business. For this reason, many landowners value the Williamson Act as essential for their farm’s survival.

“It is a crucial element in maintaining the economic viability [of agricultural land] due to the property tax relief that it provides participating landowners,” said John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Since the Williamson Act’s conception in 1965, counties have been reimbursed by the state for the loss in property tax dollars. With the act’s recent financial cut, the state will no longer provide counties with the difference.

John Young, Yolo County’s chief deputy agricultural commissioner and sealer of weights and measures, said 400,000 of the 600,000 acres of agricultural land in Yolo County are currently enrolled in the Williamson Act. Many landowners will feel the effects if Yolo County decides not to renew the contracts with landowners.

Robert Ramming, owner of the organic Pacific Star Gardens fruits and vegetables farm in Woodland said if the Williamson Act was not in place, he and his family would never have been able to maintain their 40-acre farm by just the sales of their produce.

In response to the possibility of Yolo County not renewing contracts with farmers, Ramming proposed that landowners join forces and form a voluntary commission. Donations from these landowners and those in favor of the Williamson Act would be given to the county in return for their agreement not to cancel the contracts.

Some landowners worry that without the Williamson Act, or measures such as Ramming’s, they may be forced to start taxing themselves to ensure the county will renew contracts.

Fellow landowner, Casey Stone, vice president of Yolo Land & Cattle Co. and director of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, said if the county was to cancel contracts it would be detrimental blow.

“[The Williamson Act] is not a fad program,” Stone said. “It’s been a long, time-proven program. It’s certainly the most cost effective way to keep productive agricultural land.”

Apart from allowing land to be kept in agricultural hands as opposed to developmental ones, the Williamson Act plays a significant role in the California environment.

Gamper said the act prevents low-density residential development, which alters plant species and wildlife habitats.

“This program is clearly California’s most important and most successful farm and ranch conservation program,” Gamper said.

KELLEY REES can be reached at city@theaggie.org.