Williamson Act Limitations

6 Apr 2012

Williamson Act compliance or “compatibility” includes the following minimum requirements:

A compatible use: (1) must “not significantly compromise the long-term productive agricultural capability” of any land under contract; (2) must “not significantly displace or impair current or reasonably foreseeable agricultural operations” on any land under contract, unless it is for a related activity, such as processing or shipping; and (3) must “not result in the significant removal of adjacent contracted land.”

For nonprime farmland, a city or county may allow uses that do not satisfy the first two criteria, so long as: (1) there are conditions that “make the use consistent” with the first two criteria “to the greatest extent possible”; (2) the city or county has considered both “the productive capability” of the land and “the extent to which the use may displace or impair agricultural operations”; (3) the use is consistent with the purposes of the chapter; and (4) the use does not include a residential subdivision.

Material breach of a contract can result in: (1) an order to eliminate the condition causing the material breach; or (2) termination of the contract and a penalty of 25 percent of the fair market value of the portion of the property affected by the breach, plus 25 percent of the value of any improvements causing the breach.

Williamson Act contracts generally have a minimum initial term of ten years. (Farmland Security Zone contracts generally have a minimum initial term of 20 years.) Each year the term is automatically extended by another year, unless the landowner or the city or county submits a notice of nonrenewal. Landowners who decide not to renew their contracts must wait until the contract expires--i.e., nine years or more--before the land is released.

Landowners can also petition the city or county to “cancel” the contracts without waiting for them to expire. However, cancellation can only be approved if the city or county makes one of the following findings:

The cancellation is consistent with the purposes of the Act, which means: (1) it is for land on which a notice of nonrenewal has been served; (2) it is “not likely to result in the removal of adjacent lands from agricultural use”; (3) it is for a use that is consistent with the general plan; (4) it will not result in discontiguous patterns of urban development; and (5) there is no “proximate noncontracted land” that could be used, or if such land exists, development of the land proposed for cancellation would result in “more contiguous development” than development of the “proximate noncontracted land.”

The cancellation is in the public interest, which means: (1) “other public concerns substantially outweigh the objectives” of the Act; and (2) there is no “proximate noncontracted land” that could be used, or if such land exists, development of the land proposed for cancellation would result in “more contiguous development” than development of the “proximate noncontracted land.”

The fee for cancellation is 12.5 percent of the land’s fair market value. (The criteria for canceling a FSZ contract are more stringent, and the fee is double.)

Recent legislation has made it possible to rescind Williamson Act contracts on “marginally productive or physically impaired land” to allow for solar development. Upon mutual agreement of the landowner and the city or county, and approval by the Department of Conservation, the contract is replaced by a solar easement with a minimum initial term of 10 years. The rescission fee is 6.25 percent of fair market value. (The fee is double for FSZ contracts.) A solar use easement may be extinguished only by nonrenewal, a petition for termination approved by the city or county, or by returning the land to a Williamson Act contract. When the easement is removed, the land must be restored to its pre-easement condition.

--Jon Welner

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