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SECTION II:  POTENTIAL STRATEGIES
GROUP E: STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESSFUL PLANNING BY PROJECT PROPONENTS

Strategy E2: Work with Local Government
Strategy E2.2: Implement actions required by the Williamson Act

DESCRIPTION

The Williamson Act  is an agricultural land protection program enacted by the California Legislature in 1965 to help maintain the agricultural economy of the state by preserving its agricultural land. The act discourages premature and unnecessary conversion of agricultural land to urban uses. The legislation benefits landowners by allowing them to enter into long-term contracts (10 or 20 years) with the state of California to keep agricultural land in production. In return, the state reduces property taxes based on a complex calculation tied to agricultural income.

The Williamson Act is implemented when a city or county creates an agricultural preserve. Once a preserve is established, the landowner enters into a contract with a city or county. The landowner and any successors-in-interest are obligated to adhere to the contract’s enforceable restrictions, unless the contract is rescinded or cancelled. The minimum Williamson Act contract term is ten years and the contract is automatically renewed each year, adding an additional year to its term. If a county agrees to establish a Farmland Security Zone (FSZ, or “Super-Williamson Act”) program, landowners may choose to enter into a 20-year contract to establish an FSZ or include the land within an established FSZ. In return, FSZ contracts offer landowners greater property tax reduction than under a 10-year Williamson Act contract.

These Williamson Act and FSZ contracts may be terminated by non-renewal or by cancellation. If a 10- or 20-year contract is terminated through non-renewal, a 9- or 19-year non-renewal period must be initiated by either the landowner or the city or county, during which time the land is still under contract, and the property taxes rise by a statutory formula during the last nine years of either form of contract. If a contract is terminated through cancellation, a city or county must make findings specific to each type of contract to justify cancellation.

Under several provisions of the Act, land under contract may be removed from contract in order to convert land to a non-agricultural use. Land may be acquired from a willing seller or by public acquisition for a public improvement project.
The statute sets forth a number of requirements for public agency project proponents that want to implement projects within agricultural preserves and subject to Williamson Act contracts subject to Williamson Act contracts.  The following discussion identifies some factors to consider where applicable; however compliance with CEQA is a legal question and should be discussed with legal counsel.

  • Comply with applicable provisions of California Government Code Sections 51290–51295 with regard to acquiring lands within agricultural preserves and subject to Williamson Act contracts. Sections 51290(a) and 51290(b) specify that State policy, consistent with the purpose of the Williamson Act to preserve and protect agricultural land, is to avoid locating public improvements and any public utilities improvements in agricultural preserves, whenever feasible. If it is infeasible to locate such improvements outside of a preserve, they shall be located on land that is not under contract, if feasible.

  • Whenever it appears that land within a preserve or under contract may be required for a public improvement, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the city or county responsible for administering the preserve must be notified (Section 51291(b)).  Within 30 days of being notified, DOC and the city or county must forward comments, which will be considered by the proponents of the public improvement (Section 51291(b))

  • A public improvement generally may not be located within an agricultural preserve unless the project proponents make specific findings to the effect that (1) the location is not based primarily on the lower cost of acquiring land in an agricultural preserve and (2) for agricultural land covered under a contract for any public improvement, no other land exists within or outside the preserve where it is reasonably feasible to locate the public improvement (Sections 51921(a) and 51921(b)). Findings do not need be made if the action falls within one of the exemptions in Section 51293. The contract is normally terminated when land is acquired by eminent domain or in lieu of eminent domain (Section 51295).

  • DOC must be notified within 10 working days upon completion of the acquisition (Section 51291(c)).

  • DOC and the city or county must be notified before completion of any proposed work of any significant changes related to the public improvement (Section 51291(d)).

  • If, after acquisition, the acquiring public agency determines that the property would not be used for the proposed public improvement, DOC and the city or county administering the involved preserve must be notified before the land is returned to private ownership. The land will be reenrolled in a new contract or encumbered by an enforceable restriction at least as restrictive as that provided by the Williamson Act (Section 51295).

RELATED PROGRAMS AND POLICIES

The Williamson Act provides some exemptions from the findings listed above. These exemptions are identified in §51293 of the California Government Code and are listed below.

  • The acquisition of either (1) temporary construction easements for public utility improvements, or (2) an interest in real property for underground public utility improvements. The exemption applies only where the surface of the land subject to the acquisition is returned to the condition and use that immediately predated the construction of the public improvement, and when the construction of the public utility improvement will not significantly impair agricultural use of the affected contracted parcel or parcels.

  • The location or construction of the following types of improvements, which are hereby determined to be compatible with or to enhance land within an agricultural preserve [not a contract]:

    • (1) Flood control works, including channel rectification and alteration.

    • (2) Public works required for fish and wildlife enhancement and preservation.

    • (3) Improvements for the primary benefit of the lands within the preserve.

  • All facilities which are part of the State Water Facilities as described in subdivision (d) of Section 12934 of the Water Code, except facilities under paragraph (6) of subdivision (d) of that section
  • The acquisition of a fee interest or conservation easement for a term of at least 10 years, in order to restrict the land to agricultural or open space uses as defined by subdivisions (b) and (o) of Section 51201.

ISSUES

Project proponents need to remember that there are specific policies and requirements that may apply when changing land use to non-agricultural uses when the land in question is within an agricultural preserve and subject to Williamson Act contracts.  Unless specifically stated in the statute, state agencies are not exempt from these requirements.  
Some land uses may be compatible with the agricultural use. Project proponents should check with the county in which the project is located to determine what uses are compatible.
As discussed above, contracts may be terminated by non-renewal.  This process takes either 10 or 20 years, depending on what type of contract is involved.
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PARTNERS AND POSSIBLITIES

  • Farmers/landowners
  • County in which the project is located.

 

If you would like to provide feedback on this strategy, please click the following link: Agricultural Stewardship Strategy Feedback Form

ALS Workgroup: ALS Framework and Strategies: Section II:  Strategy E2.2 Implement actions required by the Williamson Act: 061014