SLO County wants Williamson Act money back in California budget

The county is expected to formally ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday to restore Williamson Act money to the state budget, arguing that agriculture, which the act encourages, is a “significant economic driver in San Luis Obispo County.”

Under the Williamson Act, first approved in 1965 and formally title the California Land Conservation Act, farmers and ranchers get a tax break in exchange for which they agree to farm or ranch and not sell their land for development for a specific time, usually 10 or 20 years.

The act allows the land to be assessed for property tax purposes at a rate consistent with its actual use rather than its potential fair market value.

Agreements are between landowners and cities and counties, but the state has also subsidized them.

In San Luis Obispo County, crop values in 2009 were estimated at $623,095,000, according to a report from county Administrator Jim Grant. He wrote that 67 percent of the county’s agriculture-zoned land — or 37 percent all county land — “is subject to land conservation contracts under the Williamson Act.”

The county loses $2.4 million annually in uncollected property taxes due to the Williamson Act, Grant wrote. The state has historically given the county $1 million of that through subventions. Sacramento reduced that amount two years ago, and last year eliminated the subvention altogether.

The county made up the difference itself.

Eliminating subventions “sends the wrong message to local government by implying that the state is no longer committed to preservation of agriculture,” according to a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors by the county’s Agricultural Preserve Review Committee.

In a draft of a letter the board is expected to send to Schwarzenegger on Tuesday, supervisors write that, “for California, eliminating the subvention payments is the first step toward a total unraveling of the broadest-based agricultural conservation program in the state.”

“California is losing its working landscapes at an alarming rate while simultaneously faced with tremendous population pressure that further jeopardizes the economic viability of thousands of farming and ranching enterprises.”

Should supervisors send the letter, they will be joining a forceful movement spearheaded by the California State Association of Counties.