"If we lose that act, California will never be the same. It will not," Payen said. "We'll lose our Western heritage, everything. It's a huge issue for everyone who is a Californian." -- Sacramento Bee, Feb. 2, 2011
Poor Ms. Payen and her husband, "Sam," only got 10,800 acres. If the Williamson Act is eliminated, we're going to lose our Western heritage? What on earth does that statement mean? If we are, perhaps, native Californians, we have no other heritage and it doesn't depend on whether or not the Payens lose a government subvention of their property taxes.
If the 46-year-old Williamson Act, which was presented in Merced County in 2000 by then state Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza and members of the Board of Supervisors as "mitigation for UC Merced," were such an effective tool against urban sprawl, why does California now have close to 40 million inhabitants -- more than its natural resources can carry?
Badlands Journal editorial board
The Sacramento Bee
Landowners fear effects of Williamson Act repeal
By LORETTA KALB
SACRAMENTO -- In some ways, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed elimination of California's Land Conservation Act is just one more symbol of the state's great budget disaster.
For many agriculture advocates, the consequences of abandoning a long-held strategy to preserve farmland and open space go well beyond the state's projected $25.4 billion deficit.
Supporters say eliminating the 46-year-old law -- commonly known as the Williamson Act -- will diminish an important source of environmental protection for 16.5 million acres and increase development pressure on farmers and ranchers.
The Williamson Act enables counties to contract with farmers, ranchers and other landowners, generally for 10-year terms, to keep the property taxes on their acreage lower. In exchange, the owners agree to keep the land undeveloped.
Historically, the state has provided money to the counties to offset their property tax losses. If the program goes away, some landowners question their ability to continue operating their farms and ranches in the face of higher property taxes.
"That would mean our family unit of five generations would be going out of the cattle industry," said Pamela Payen of Sacramento, who is a co-owner of the family ranch with her husband, Louis "Sam" Payen.
The Payen Ranch winters hundreds of head of beef cattle in the Sloughhouse area each year. In summer, the cattle are hauled to the high mountain meadows of Sierra County. All 10,800 acres of the Payen Ranch land in California are enrolled in the Williamson Act.
"If we lose that act, California will never be the same. It will not," Payen said. "We'll lose our Western heritage, everything. It's a huge issue for everyone who is a Californian."
Deficits force cuts
The act has critics. In 2005, the legislative analyst's office recommended that lawmakers begin phasing out state support. The analysts suggested that local governments could find other ways to resist pressure to develop in open space.
They said the $35 million to $40 million allocated to the program was too costly, adding that there's no assurance that the lands protected actually face development pressures.
Eventually, large state budget deficits forced reductions in state support, starting with a 10 percent drop in 2008.
Even so, the language of the act remained in place. In 2009, Gov. Schwarzenegger cut funding to a $1,000 placeholder.
Some counties absorbed the 2009 losses. Sacramento County, for example, allocated $512,000 to keep local contracts whole.
Smaller, more rural counties, such as agriculturally rich Yolo County, faced disproportionate burdens. Yolo County absorbed the entire $1.3 million in lost state support in 2009.
"It's been the cheapest farmland preservation tool in California history," said Yolo County cattle rancher Casey Stone. "And it's a relatively small investment to keep in place from our perspective."
Last year, in an attempt to keep a modified program in place, the California Farm Bureau Federation successfully backed Senate Bill 863, which allowed contracts to be shortened to nine years as counties assessed Williamson Act lands at slightly higher values.
SB 863 appropriated $10 million for the modified program. Now that program, too, is on the state Finance Department chopping block.
Should the funding support disappear, Stone said, economic realities will determine what happens next.
"It forces growers, if they can't make a decent income to pay the property taxes, to look at the highest and best uses of their property," he said. "That means residential development in some areas."
Petrea Marchand, Yolo County's head of intergovernmental affairs, said the justification for eliminating the Williamson Act has been that "if counties want this program, they should pay for it." She said it would be a mistake for the state to assume "that local governments can afford to support this land program in perpetuity."
And the state does benefit from preserving open space. "The act is important for food security, reducing greenhouse gases, habitat preservation," Marchand said.
More than 60 percent of Yolo County's agricultural land is enrolled under the Williamson Act. Under SB 863, Yolo County expects to receive about $300,000 this fiscal year and $500,000 yearly thereafter.
"Just zeroing out the funding, I think, would be a pretty devastating thing for a lot of rural areas that have in the past worked closely with other interests to preserve open space in California," said Jenesse Miller, communications director for the California League of Conservation Voters. "Given that California is going through a lot of progressive thinking about how to reverse sprawl, this would be a step back."
Payen said her family's ranch, in operation since 1852, is facing the pressures of change in Sacramento County's pastoral landscape.
There are plans for hard-rock quarries on three sides of the ranch that will "take from this area a beautiful part of California that reflects the way it was 200 years ago," she said.
In its place, she said, will be heavy industry and the long-lasting effects of diminished air and water quality along with noise pollution.