In an effort to tackle the budget deficit, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed cutting California’s most effective agricultural and open space land preservation program. Commonly referred to as the Williamson Act, the California Land Conservation Act of 1965 allows the state’s 58 counties to enter into contracts with private property owners in an effort to preserve land for agriculture or open space. According to the Department of Conservation’s Division of Land and Resource Protection, nearly 16 million acres, or half of California’s farm and ranch land, is under the Williamson Act. These contracts usually require that land owners not develop on their property usually for a ten year period in exchange for a 20-75 percent cut in their property taxes. The state then sets aside funds to help with each county’s loss in property tax revenue. In 2008-09 the state appropriated nearly $40 million in subvention funds. During the budget crisis, the funds were completely suspended; and now, under Brown’s proposed budget, the state would terminate Williamson Act funding in an attempt to tackle a part of the $25 billion deficit.
While touted by many, the Williamson Act has come under fire in the more recent past. The Legislative Analyst Office in the 2004 General Government Analysis noted that “with a $39.8 million subvention allocation, the program would cost the state more than $80 million when the full weight of the lost property tax revenue was taken into consideration.” Despite the fiscal issues tied to it, the Williamson Act has been a major player in preservation of California open spaces and its cessation will likely draw serious implications.