Repeal of Williamson Act could change the face of Central Valley's landscape

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webmaster | 07/28/07

Like other important regions in California, people seeking a place to work and live outside of a large city are changing the landscape and spurring people to ask what Madera's future really holds.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the valley has lost more than 40,000 acres of farmland to development. But as long as a percentage of land contains farms, livestock, row crops, tomatoes, cotton, orchards peaches, almonds, figs and pomegranates, we are safe. As long as food is available and businesses continue along, our community is safe.

Maybe.

But with recent threat to repeal the Williamson Act, farmers and community members paused to consider its greater implications.

In Madera County, about 538,700 acres are under contract through the Williamson Act subvention program that protects the state's agriculture and open space lands. But a proposal in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget could eliminate reimbursements that the County uses to help run the program.

"The potential loss of the Williamson Act not only affects all farming operations, this action would affect those in farming who can least afford it- mom and pop farmers who have worked the soil of Madera County for 100 years," Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Vern Moss said. "This is a direct attack on agriculture."

Schwarzenegger intends to cut the subvention program to save $39 million. This is a critical funding component for local government, and amounts to only .036 of 1 percent of the overall proposed state budget.

In order to subsidize such a program by itself, the county would be forced to cut budgets of various other programs such as public safety, the animal shelter and personnel, Moss, said.

"This would be a $1.4 million loss of funds annually," Moss said. "Any loss of funds of this type has the potential of affecting funding of other programs."

These funds are used to support contracts the Act calls for between the County and local property owners. Land owners agree not to develop land for a minimum of 10 years in exchange for a tax break. The reimbursement from the state to the County covers a portion of the property tax revenues it would receive if the land wasn't under the Williamson Act contract: $5 per acre for prime agricultural land, and $1 for non-prime agricultural land.

In 2006, Madera County's share was almost $1.4 million and the state paid about $1.2 million in subventions. In the past 25 years, Madera County has taken a loss of about $3.2 million in its share of costs alone.

"The Board would have to determine the impact on Madera County of the loss of funds and determine if new contracts would be entered into or not," Moss said. "I believe there is a legal requirement to fulfill existing contracts."

Now, contracts are automatically renewed every year for 10 years. Should the state cut the Williamson Act from the budget, counties would have to honor these contracts until they expire in about nine years at a cost of about $2.6 million annually. Once these contracts expire and if the County finds it cannot financially support the program, it would no longer be able to protect farms, ranches and open space from development.

According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, agriculture in California generated about $25 billion in 1999, the most recent figures available. This amounts to 6.6 percent of the state's total annual personal income. Agriculture also supports more than a million jobs, nearly 8 percent of all employment.

In the Central Valley, agriculture accounts for more than 21 percent of all income, and 25 percent of all employment, making it a significant factor in the Valley's economy.

In 2006, the value of Madera County's 538,699 acres in the Williamson Act program that wasn't taxed exceeded $1.2 billion. The value taxed was about $421 million-a reduction of more than $876 million. Once the Williamson Act is cut, and the contracts expire, farmers and ranchers will face taxes that could force them to shut their operations down or the county would have to find a way to fund a similar program on its own.

"The real issue would be to determine if contracts beyond what we have today would be renewed," Moss said.

The issue isn't saving every acre of farmland, but providing for the long-term health and sustainability of agriculture.

It Sustaining Ag requires roads, processing plants, water and workers. There must be a reasonable belief Ag will be welcome and able to operate profitably now and in the future without vexing complaints from urban neighbors.

Why should we have to force a choice between housing and farms.

Anyone wishing to voice an opinion on the governor's proposed cut of the Williamson Act subvention program may write Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, State Capitol Building, Sacramento, CA 95814.

 

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