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Williamson Act benefits all of us

Op-Ed

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In California, we love our natural landscape and love to conserve its beauty for future generations.

What we don't always love is paying the bill for our preservation efforts.

Since 2009, the state government has reversed more than four decades of successful farm- and ranch-preservation policy and eliminated funding for the Williamson Act. Since the 1960s, the law has granted property-tax relief for agricultural land whose owners sign long-term contracts promising not to convert their farms and ranches to subdivisions and strip malls. In a growing state, some farmland conversion is inevitable, but the Williamson Act has eased the pressure to sell to developers. It has preserved California's world-renowned ag land, the soil that makes us America's No. 1 farm state and generates billions of dollars' worth of exports. It has kept intact the ranches that provide forage for herds of cattle and wild game alike. And, unlike many environmental laws that put costly burdens on landowners, the Williamson Act is both voluntary and very popular.

Yet the state is effectively gutting the Williamson Act by declining to fund it. Under the program, individual landowners contract with counties, while the state historically made up lost property-tax revenue so counties can provide vital local services -- sheriff's patrols, firefighting response, road maintenance. If the state doesn't make counties whole, they'll be forced sooner or later to let Williamson Act contracts expire and start raising landowners' taxes. Many ranches are land-rich but cash-poor, and this could be the last straw that pushes families to sell, all but inevitably carving priceless rangelands into suburban ranchettes.

Ironically, all this is happening even as wildlife managers recognize the vital importance of these working landscapes not just to the farm economy, but also to the environment. The state continues to buy conservation easements -- through the bond-funded Wildlife Conservation Board and other avenues -- to prevent ranch conversions and save valuable habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has launched the California Foothill Legacy Program, a long-term plan to preserve the ranchlands ringing California's Central Valley, along with their vernal pools and oak woodlands and the many rare wildlife species they support.

It's hard to make sense of the contradictory policies. The simple answer is money. The state struggled through a terrible recession and the Legislature and governors had no choice but to impose painful budget cuts. Now, however, the state's economy is recovering and the budget is balanced. It's time for the state to strategically invest in its top priorities, including the environment and the future of our critical farm economy.

Restoring Williamson Act budgets will carry on a tradition of agricultural preservation that has enjoyed universal buy-in, but without bankrupting the county governments whose job is to keep their residents safe and healthy. Fully funding the Williamson Act would cost the state government roughly $40 million a year. That's a tiny fraction of the state's $100 billion budget. For rural counties, though, those extra millions can make an extraordinary difference. The money can mean a nighttime deputy on patrol in communities that frequently have no law enforcement presence at all, or an extra mental health counselor in regions where psychiatric services are nearly nonexistent.

The Williamson Act has worked for two generations. Now that it can afford the modest cost, the state Legislature needs to fund the law and keep California's farm promise for the next generation.


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