Williamson Act funds slim down for foothill counties

Walt Cook, The Union Democrat /

Things are looking better for the Williamson Land Conservation Act this year, with the state providing some funding to keep the tax-break program afloat.

But the money is just a fraction of what it was in years past. Nonetheless, for county officials throughout the state, this year's outlook beats last year, when the state nixed the funds completely.

That action - just one meant to deal with a big state budget deficit - forced counties to subsidize the program themselves or halt participation in the program.

Calaveras and Tuolumne counties were among those who put up some of their own funds to keep the program running seamlessly.

In the past, Williamson Act subvention funds amounted to roughly $130,000 annually for Calaveras County and nearly $100,000 annually for Tuolumne County.

This year, the two counties are getting about a quarter of the Williamson Act funding they've traditionally received.

About 130,000 acres are protected under the Williamson Act in Calaveras County; 100,000 in Tuolumne County.

Statewide, the state, in recent years, has paid about $35 million to counties for roughly 17 million acres protected under the Williamson Act. This year, only $10 million is available.

The money is for tax revenue counties would have otherwise earned if it weren't for their participation in the act.

Participating landowners are required to enter into 10-year contracts in which they agree not to develop their land, with the contracts renewed each year.

New funds

Last Tuesday, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors opted to not

participate in a supplemental funding measure - made possible via

Senate Bill 863 - because it appeared the additional revenue would be

canceled out by the costs of participating in the measure.

Participation in this supplemental program would have required the

county to send out notices to all affected landowners, hold a public

hearing on the issue and re-asses the taxable value of the affected

parcels - a prospect that could increase tax rates.

Sasha Farkas, president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, agreed

with the county's move to not seek the supplemental funding.

"It could have drastically increased everyone's property tax," he said.

During Tuesday's discussion of whether to seek the additional

funding, supervisors wondered whether it was proper to call the

Williamson Act a subsidy.

Farkas told supervisors he had no problem with the term, but he

clarified that it's food that's being subsidized, not the farmers.

Jim Costello, owner of Mt. Brow Winery in Sonora, praised the Williamson Act following last week's meeting.

"It protects the farmers from getting hit with taxes," he said.

"This is a tough business and the Williamson Act really helps."

Tuolumne County Supervisor Teri Murrison pointed out an added

benefit to the Williamson Act, saying it "also helps us by providing

those open spaces that attract people to Tuolumne County in the first

place."

Contact Walt Cook at wcook@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4530.

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