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Strategy E2: Work with local government
Strategy E.2.3:  Work with counties to expand Williamson Act authorized uses


As noted in Strategy E2.5, the Williamson Act was enacted in 1965 to help lessen the impacts of rapidly spiraling land values and property taxes, and to ensure that California would continue to benefit from a long-term supply of agricultural and open space land.  In the 48 years since, the Act has been primarily used by local governments to preserve agricultural land in California.  However, the Act also provides options for non-agricultural open space contracts (e.g. for wetland and wildlife habitat) per Government Code § 51205. Cities and counties have the authority to include open space, habitat, and recreation as primary uses in agricultural preserves and to provide for those uses in their Williamson Act contracts. In the Delta, relatively few, if any agricultural preserves currently provide for exclusive open space contracts to be set up. Accordingly, open space, habitat, and recreation uses can occur as a “compatible use” but not as a primary use.

The Williamson Act (Government Code § 51254) provides for the conversion of existing agricultural contracts to open space contracts (or open space easements). The contracting parties, by mutual agreement, can rescind an existing agricultural contract and simultaneously enter into a new open space contract. Securing the cooperation of the Delta counties in the conversion of Williamson Act agricultural contracts to open space contracts could facilitate a farmer’s ability to remain on the land by allowing habitat/open space as the primary use while retaining Williamson Act property tax benefits.  The farmer could then act as property manager for the habitat land and, if feasible, continue to farm a portion of the land as a secondary use. Keeping the land in private ownership retains the property’s contribution to the respective county’s tax base.


Under the provisions of the Planning and Zoning Act (Gov. Code §65000, et seq.) cities and counties must prepare general plans, incorporating seven mandatory elements, including land use, open space and conservation.  Within these elements, a city or county normally provides direction and future intent for the land identified as agricultural or open space land.  The Williamson Act provides a narrower spectrum of land that can be compatible as open space within agricultural preserves and under Williamson Act contracts.    These limited uses, which are further defined within the Act, include: (1) a scenic highway corridor, (2) a wildlife habitat area, (3) a saltpond, (4) a managed wetland area, (5) a submerged area, or, (6) an area enrolled in the United States Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program or Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.


The loss of OSSA funding makes the resulting reduction in property tax revenues a greater challenge for counties.  Conversion of producing agricultural land to lower production or open space could also reduce the income from affected land. The strategy could also be viewed as reducing agricultural production and income options and detrimental to the local economy. On the other hand, if there is no agreement to provide for a change from agricultural to open space use, BDCP participants may choose to not renew the existing Williamson Act contracts which could lead to uncertainty with regard to property tax values, in lieu taxes and the potential for subventions.  Achieving cooperation from the participating counties will be the key to the success of this strategy and the development of identifiable benefits or meaningful incentives could encourage the counties to consider changing the existing contracts.


Many NGOs, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and regional and local land trusts, have dealt with the issue of Williamson Act agricultural restrictions on lands that they have acquired for restoration. The conversion of existing Williamson Act agricultural contracts to open space contracts or open space easements could facilitate habitat restoration and the development of recreational opportunities, which are goals that are shared by many groups. These shared goals could provide partnering opportunities that expand the scope and effectiveness of this strategy. Converting Williamson Act agricultural contracts to open space contracts or easements could provide options to facilitate habitat restoration and the development of recreational opportunities, while avoiding potential conflicts with local Williamson Act rules that may limit nonagricultural open space uses.

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 E2.3 Williamson Act Open Space Contracts: 102913