Friday, June 3, 2005

Principles for resolving the Williamson Act issues in Santa Clara County

Along with our Action Alert on Williamson Act issues, CGF submitted the following memo that gives an expanded version of the working principles we think should be used to resolve compliance problems in Santa Clara County.


To: Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
From: Committee for Green Foothills
Date: May 31, 2005

Re: Proposed working principles for resolving Williamson Act Issues in Santa Clara County

The Committee for Green Foothills proposes the following principles for resolving problems with Williamson Act compliance in Santa Clara County:

1. Each Williamson Act constitutes an agreement between the landowner and the taxpayers – the taxpayers have agreed to pay higher taxes than the landowner has to in order to preserve farming and ranching for ten years. Cancellation of contracts (as opposed to non-renewal) is appropriately disfavored and subject to a penalty because the taxpayers lose that medium term, ten-year protection.

2. Landowners have developed and subdivided land under Williamson Act contracts in ways that contravene their contracts. These violations have occurred while the County has been deficient in protecting the taxpayers’ side of Williamson Act contracts over the years, by allowing development and subdivisions that harms farming and ranching. Taxpayers and the state are appropriately upset over non-compliance by landowners and non-enforcement by the County. The past violations are not grounds for landowners to demand continued non-enforcement of Williamson Act contracts. The County, instead, must start protecting the taxpayers’ interest in the Williamson Act.

3. Developers and others who purchased lands based on their own expectation that non-enforcement of Williamson Act in the past will continue in the future, made that purchase at their own risk.

4. The simplest method for landowners to end Williamson Act restrictions on their property is to file non-renewal of the contract, and start the ten-year clock to allow development.

5. The per-acre value of small parcels (less than 10 acres of prime land or less than 40 acres of non-prime land) carved from larger parcels after Williamson Act restrictions were in place have mushroomed over the value the acreage would have had if it had been retained in a large parcel. If people want to cancel the contracts now, the land they possess already has greatly appreciated in value, so there is no clear reason why the 12.5% cancellation fee should be waived.

6. Preservation as open space rather than agricultural use would be worth considering in the County for properties that are not viable for farming and ranching. However, the County should be careful about immediately switching viable Williamson Act properties to Open Space contracts merely to facilitate monster mansion development.

7. Monster mansions can interfere with the continuing viability of farming and ranching on a property both by directly interfering with agricultural operations, and by making the property only financially available to those who want the monster mansion, not genuine farmers and ranchers who want to continue agricultural operations. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “incidental” as “[s]ubordinate to something of greater importance; having a minor role.” A monster mansion will substantially detract from the ability to keep a property in agricultural operations and therefore will not be an “incidental” use.

8. For very large parcels, the size of the residence may be less important. A rancher with the financial ability to buy a 5,000 acre ranch will likely be able to afford the cost of a larger residence on-site, while a rancher investigating a 70 acre parcel might not be able to afford a large residence on site.

9. Some flexibility in proving agricultural use is necessary, but the County must not create a loophole where landowners providing essentially no agricultural use are taking a tax subsidy. While the $10,000 annual gross income figure is too large for many parcels involved in ranching and hay production, some criteria must be used that demonstrates more than token agricultural use, and that demonstrated use should scale to the size of the parcel. Proof of actual agricultural use for 1000 acres should be more substantial than that needed for 40 acres.

10. The County should enforce the Williamson Act through the use of penalty provisions provided by law for illegal construction as well as any other actions necessary to retain the ability for Williamson Act properties to remain viable for farming and ranching.

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