Union Democrat staff

"A dreadful and shortsighted mistake."

That's how Calaveras County Agricultural Commissioner Mary Mutz described potential elimination of the Williamson Act, which gives property tax breaks to owners who agree to keep their acreage in agricultural production.

Not only was Mutz accurate, but county supervisors listened: Although the financially stricken state government has stopped paying counties subventions to make up for local tax losses, the board won't give up on the 45-year-old Williamson Act.

Calaveras farmers, ranchers and wine grape growers will continue to get breaks, although the county's $135,000-per-year state subsidy has been pulled.

The same is true in Tuolumne County, where annual subventions of close to $100,000 have been eliminated. Two years ago, threatened by an earlier round of cuts, supervisors voted to persevere on their own, and its ranchers are still getting tax breaks.

The Tuolumne board, however, will revisit the Williamson Act on Sept. 8 and could make changes.

The decisions to stick by the program speak well for the two counties: At stake is the future of more than a quarter-million acres - 134,000 in Calaveras and 121,000 in Tuolumne.

That land is under Williamson Act contract, under which owners each year renew their promise to keep their properties in agricultural use for a decade. It's a rolling 10-year agreement, so owners now wanting out must wait until 2019.

Providing these incentives, obviously, is not free. Counties collect only a fraction of full taxation on Williamson Act parcels.

Still - because many of these ag parcels have been under the same ownership for years, without new improvements or uses - wholesale non-renewal of contracts would not bring the county dramatic revenue gains.

In Calaveras County, for instance, full taxation of the contracted lands, even without the state offset, would bring less than $185,000 in revenue. Addressing the consequences of the resulting "urban sprawl," pointed out Supervisor Tom Tryon, could cost far more.

Bottom line: The Williamson Act is a good deal for Mother Lode counties. Even during the housing boom, ag lands in the western ends of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties remained open, contributing to a diverse economy and providing a beautiful entry to the Mother Lode and the mountains beyond.

But while our supervisors have stepped to the plate, California government did not: A 20 percent cut in Williamson Act subventions agreed to by legislators fell to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's line item veto last month.

His blue pencil eliminated nearly $35 million in subventions statewide and left a number of valley agricultural counties millions of dollars in the hole. Some are considering closing the door on new contracts or declining to renew existing agreements.

Many predict that already high development pressures on farmers and ranchers will increase and that the law's 45 years of success could quickly be undone.

The Williamson Act, called by many the most successful environmental protection program in California history, is essential to future of agriculture. Counties like Tuolumne and Calaveras realize this, but local government can't be expected to carry the burden alone.

State Williamson Act subsidies must be restored as soon as financially possible.