Ag land act stays in state's budget

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By ABBY SOUZA

Previously expected to be one of the many cuts Gov. Gray Davis would make to the state's budget, the Williamson Act has been saved.

The state budget's May revision, released Wednesday, shows that funding has been completely restored for the Williamson Act, legislation that gives ranchers and farmers tax breaks for keeping their acreage intact.

The act took effect in 1965 and allows farmers, ranchers and other property owners who agree not to develop or sell their land for at least 10 years to qualify for lower property tax rates.

The decrease is based on the property's profit potential if used to raise crops or livestock, compared to the amount it would make if it was subdivided and developed. The state pays the county the difference between the two tax amounts.

The act is considered the broadest-based conservation program in California, covering nearly 40 percent or more than 16 million acres of the privately held land in the state.

In the January 2003-04 budget proposal, Davis cut the $40 million program in order to cover part of the state budget's $38.2 billion shortfall.

But, with the Williamson Act back in the budget, many in the agriculture industry are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

"It's a great thing for the county," Tuolumne County Agriculture Commissioner Gary Caseri said of the decision to keep the Williamson Act going. "The program is such an important one. It would have been a shame to do away with a program that has done so much and been around for so long."

The cut would have meant a loss of $116,758 in Tuolumne County and $195,227 in Calaveras County. That money is keeping 390,826 acres of land designated as open space or agricultural in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

"The elimination of this program would have severely impacted the agriculture industry," said John Gamper, a California Farm Bureau spokesman.

Contact Abby Souza at asouza@uniondemocrat.com .

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