The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has reiterated its support of a state law that gives tax breaks to farmland owners who agree not to build on their land, but the leaders hinted they might tinker with it in the future.
In an update about the Williamson Act, Senior Planner Warren Hoag noted to supervisors that in recent years the state government stopped reimbursing the county for the lost revenue associated with the property-tax breaks.
The county has picked up the slack and signaled Tuesday that it would do the same this fiscal year, with the prospects of state reimbursement money uncertain.
There was unanimity among supervisors on the importance of the Williamson Act to San Luis Obispo County. They felt that not only does it keep farmers and ranchers in business, it provides jobs, including work in corollary industries.
Some supervisors said they want to take a closer look at the program going forward, especially at the possibility that speculators are buying land, putting it into a Williamson Act contract, then not growing anything on the land.
“People come in and they buy in (to the Williamson Act) and then sit on it,” Supervisor Jim Patterson said.
The agricultural and ranching communities support keeping the act strong. Kevin Kester of Parkfield, president of the state Cattlemen’s Association, spoke in favor of it, as did Joy Fitzhugh of the Farm Bureau.
Hoag called agriculture “a significant economic driver in San Luis Obispo County.”
More than one-third of all county land is subject to land conservation contracts under the Williamson Act, he said. That includes wineries.
The Williamson Act was enacted in 1965 to preserve open space. Its formal name is the Land Conservation Act of 1965.
As to planning the future, Hoag wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune that “the board wants us to develop more focused criteria for approving contracts for admitting new land into the program.”
Among several possibilities being vetted by the county’s Ag Preserve Review Committee is increasing the amount of non-irrigated land needed to be eligible for the program.
To be eligible for a contract, dry farmland would go from 100 to 160 acres and grazing land would go from 100 to 320 acres.
“The (committee) believes this would better reflect the amount of acreage needed for sustainable dry farming and grazing operations on nonirrigated land and help focus program eligibility and the resulting tax benefits on land with higher agricultural production potential,” Hoag wrote.
“The committee also emphasized that the new criteria should only be applied prospectively to new applications and not retroactively to land under existing contracts,” Hoag added.