Trouble on the Range or a Green Opportunity? How the State's Budget Woes are Creating Both Challenges and Opportunities For Landowners Under Williamson Act Contracts


While there are signs that the greater economy may be turning a corner, the State of California continues to struggle with its finances in the wake of the economic downturn. Indeed, despite all the political wrangling and deep budget cuts last summer, Governor Schwarzenegger recently called for eliminating CalWORKS, California’s welfare-to-work program, in an effort to close a projected $19 billion budget deficit in the coming fiscal year. Other popular and fundamental programs have already suffered the wrath of the Legislature’s budgetary axe, including the State’s Williamson Act Program. Where there is trouble, however, there is usually opportunity as well. After a brief summary of the Williamson Act, this article will delve deeper into the Williamson Act Program’s current troubles and the opportunities it may afford to certain types of development that can be found to be compatible with agriculture, like wind or solar energy projects.

The California Land Conservation Act of 1965 (aka the “Williamson Act”)

Not unlike the rest of the country, California experienced sharp post-World War II increases in population growth. Published estimates state that between 1945 and 1968 California lost more than one million acres of prime farmland to urbanization. In an effort to address the impact of that growth on the state’s valuable farmland, state Assembly member John C. Williamson (who represented Kern County) drafted the bill which became law as the California Land Conservation Act of 1965 (Government Code, §§ 51200 et seq.). The Williamson Act’s broad goals include: (i) the preservation of agricultural land to assure sufficient food supplies; (ii) the discouragement of premature and unnecessary conversion of agricultural land and discontinuous urban development; and (iii) the preservation of open space.

The Williamson Act accomplishes its goals through a two-step conservation strategy and related voluntary program. In the first step, the Act authorizes counties to establish agricultural preserves of one or more parcels totaling at least 100 acres to be devoted to agricultural, open space or recreational uses. While cities are also able to participate, in practice, most of the land protected by the Act is situated within the jurisdiction of the counties. In order to create such a preserve, a county must hold a public hearing on the issue and pass a resolution declaring its intent to create the preserve. In the second step, landowners situated within such agricultural preserves may elect to enter into contracts with their counties with minimum 10-year rolling terms that restrict land use to agricultural and agricultural “compatible” uses in exchange for preferential property tax treatment. Such contracts are commonly referred to as "Williamson Act Contracts."

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