IMPERIAL COUNTY – The Williamson Act, a law enacted in the past to help protect viable farmland and the farmers who worked it with lower tax rates, was once again reviewed Tuesday at the Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting.
The Imperial County Office of Education asked the board to allow a 60-day extension allowing schools to analyze the impact of lower revenues distributed to local school districts if the act is reinstated. Although the motion to restart the Williamson Act had a motion and was seconded, the board voted to wait until October 1 for a final vote.
Viable farmland in Imperial County is quickly disappearing by becoming housing developments, commercial property, and solar farms, and this phenomenon is being duplicated throughout California and the United States.
The government has a vested interest in preserving farmland and wrote it into the Land Conservation (Williamson Act) law: “The preservation of a maximum amount of the limited supply of agricultural land is necessary to the conservation of the state’s economic resources, and… also for the assurance of adequate, healthful and nutritious food for future residents of this state and nation.”
To help landowners and farmers resist pressure to develop their ground and keep farming a viable option, the Williamson Act was enacted to tax agriculture property at a lower rate than commercial or private holdings, and remove the land from Proposition 13 rulings, which increase the tax liability with each ownership change.
The above rulings helped farmers hold on to their land, but the lessened property tax revenue hurt their communities as the counties took a financial hit to their coffers.
Today, 15 million acres in 52 counties and 15 cities are ruled under the Williamson Act, including half of the state’s farmland and 70 percent of prime soil.
Linsey Dale, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, said the Valley only has 25 percent of farmers using the Williamson Act contract for their taxed rate. Dale said she was not sure why the farmers have such a low number under contract with the county, possibly because it is a ten-year commitment and owners may not want to be forced to farm if they chose to develop.
“There is an early termination possibility in the contract, and a penalty, if the landowner desires to develop their land, but it is a tedious process of paperwork and appearances with the county. Several farmers did that recently, so they could sell their land to the solar companies,” Dale said.
Subsidy payments from the State helped backfill the county treasury to ease the loss of tax revenue to the counties.
When the recession of 2008 hit California, the State discontinued the property tax subsidy. The counties support the Williamson Act, in theory, but they also have to balance their budgets. After two years of no offsetting subsidies from the State, Imperial County dropped out of the voluntary Williamson Act, allowing the Valley’s 117,000 acres in 2011 to begin their rise into higher property tax rates. The county voted to non-renew all existing Williamson Act contracts and also not to approve additional new contracts. Under today’s standing, all existing Williamson Act contracts in the county are set to expire by 2019.
“With the county starting the nine-year phase out, that started the clock ticking for farmland to be phased back into elevated property taxes,” Dale explained. “However, if a farm owner protests, as several in the Valley did, they remained at the lower tax rates for five years. After that, they experienced a significant tax increase to put them at par with those that didn’t protest.”
Dale said she could not accurately say what the tax would be for each parcel if the Williamson Act was restarted, since each parcel of farmland has a different tax rate, depending on location and the quality of soil.
However, Dale said reinstating the Williamson Act is vital to future generations of local farmers-in-waiting. Land value in the Imperial Valley is rising dramatically, mostly due to the farmland in Central California drying up. With farming costs becoming prohibitive for non-family members to become farmers or even for farm families to keep farming, corporations without generational ties to the communities, or the land, will be the only ones able to afford to farm.