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Bill to preserve Williamson Act moves forward
By TIM HEARDEN Capital Press 5/31/11
SACRAMENTO - A bill to temporarily scale back Williamson Act contracts to make them more affordable to counties is advancing in the Legislature.
The bill by Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, would allow counties to enter contracts with landowners for nine years rather than 10 and reduce their tax relief by 10 percent to help keep the program afloat.
The bill is in the Senate after having passed the Assembly, 78-0, on May 19. Its language mirrors a Nielsen bill passed in 2010 but eliminated as part of a budget bill earlier this year.
"It's a bill that does not cost the general fund and does not apportion any money," Nielsen said. "Landowners would give up 10 percent of their benefit for counties to retain and use for other purposes in their budgets ... It would really help them significantly be able to continue contracts."
Through the four-decade-old Williamson Act, the state has paid counties subventions that compensate for much of the property tax revenue lost when they enter contracts with landowners to keep their properties in agriculture in exchange for lower tax assessments.
The state had been spending nearly $38 million a year to protect about 16 million acres, but it mostly eliminated that funding starting two years ago because of budget problems.
The current budget originally included $10 million for the program, but the Legislature eliminated that in March. It's not expected that the program will receive much, if anything, in the 2011-2012 ledger.
Proponents of Nielsen's bill - which include more than a dozen organizations ranging from the California Farm Bureau Federation to the Nature Conservancy - argue that many counties can no longer afford to continue offering the tax breaks to farmers and ranchers.
Nielsen's bill, which sunsets in 2015, enables counties to renegotiate contract terms to recoup some lost revenue while still keeping the program intact. Farmers who didn't want the shorter terms could opt out of the program.
The assemblyman said the Williamson Act has been widely supported because it gives incentives for landowners to maintain open space rather than selling their land to developers.
"Farmers really want to farm, they don't want to develop, but sometimes they don't have any choice," Nielsen said. "The loss of this option will be extremely disruptive to the preservation of agriculture as a business in this state."
Assembly Bill 1265
Proposal: Enable counties to offer slightly scaled-back Williamson Act contracts to landowners to make them more affordable.
Author: Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, http://arc.asm.ca.gov/member/2/
Supporters include: California Farm Bureau Federation: http://www.cfbf.com/
Read the bill: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/
Page Updated: Wednesday June 01, 2011 03:05 AM Pacific
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