Editorial: Williamson Act should be left intact

After withdrawing financial support for the Williamson Act, the state is threatening to drop the program altogether. That would be a mistake. Even if the state doesn’t have the revenue to support the program now — or for the foreseeable future — it should not abandon it completely.

Canceling the program would jeopardize the viability of the state’s $35 billion agriculture industry; hurt the state’s burgeoning ag tourism; and lead to the urban sprawl that state planning and development experts have been railing against for so many years.

Some background: The Williamson Act provides tax breaks to farmers and ranchers who agree to preserve their land for agricultural uses. In San Luis Obispo County alone, nearly 800,000 acres — roughly one-third of all land in the county — is under Williamson Act contract.

Historically, the program has operated as a state/county partnership, with the state reimbursing rural counties for a portion of the property tax revenue they lost due to Williamson Act contracts. In San Luis Obispo County, that’s amounted to approximately $1.1 million annually in recent years.

For the past two years, however, the state withdrew its financial support and left it to individual counties to decide whether to absorb the hit; the SLO County Board of Supervisors wisely found a way to continue the program without the state subsidies.

However, we don’t believe that rural and semi-rural counties like ours should have to carry this burden alone indefinitely.

We understand that with so many unmet needs at every level — state, county and city — no government-funded program is sacred right now.

But as tough as it is to reduce staff, shutter offices or even close libraries or parks, those are changes that can be reversed as soon as the economy improves. Once agricultural land is paved over, that can’t be undone.

We strongly urge the state to demonstrate its commitment to rural and semi-rural counties. Consider the long-term value of the Williamson Act program and resist the pressure to dismantle it.