Guest Juice: Williamson Act Land Rush

6 Apr 2012

By John Gamper

The California Land Conservation Act--known as the Williamson Act--continues to protect against the premature and unnecessary conversion of agricultural land to commercial, industrial and residential uses.

The Williamson Act currently protects 16.5 million acres, which is more than half of all California agricultural land, including 69 percent of all prime farmland. This is no small accomplishment considering the urban and suburban expansion needed to accommodate our state’s population growth from 16 million to 37 million people since the law’s adoption in 1965. California, our nation, and world are better places because of the food security that the Williamson Act provides.

As a legislative representative for the California Farm Bureau Federation for the last 32 years, whose primary responsibility is the protection of the Williamson Act, I wanted to commend Jon Welner for his synopsis of this body of law. While I may not agree with all of Welner’s recommended steps to ease the development of utility-scale solar power plants on Williamson Act land, we do agree the program is vital to protect farmland from facilities, including renewable energy facilities that significantly compromise, displace or impair agricultural production on the restricted parcel.

The Farm Bureau has watched with dismay as a growing number of utility-scale solar power projects continue to be proposed on prime farmland in exclusive agricultural zones, including agricultural preserves, and on land restricted by Williamson Act contracts.

We all need to protect the integrity of the Williamson Act more than ever considering the staggering global demographic projections for the next 40 years. With the projected world population of 9.3 billion hungry mouths by 2050, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have produced since the dawn of agriculture in 10,000 BC. Even if we could sustain the dramatic improvements in crop production accomplished during the last 60 years thanks to plant breeding and other technological advances, we cannot simply sacrifice hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farmland when there are viable alternatives available for siting on marginally productive or physically impaired land.

Thankfully, both the Legislature in its enactment and the courts in their interpretation of the Williamson Act have established the importance of California agriculture to the state and the nation. They have established that its preservation is essential due to the aforementioned growing worldwide demand for food. The adoption in 1994 of the principles of compatibility in Government Code (GC) section 51238.1 and a landmark 1981 California Supreme Court decision (Sierra Club v. City of Hayward) on contract cancellations advanced California public policy to assure compliance with the enforceable restriction requirement in Article XIII Section 8 of the California Constitution.

Does this mean that the Williamson Act is a major impediment to getting to 33 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard? Actually, it is not. We have heard on numerous occasions from Gov. Jerry Brown’s top energy advisors that the Williamson Act is not an impediment to meeting our renewable energy goals. Now, the addition of the Solar-Use Easement provisions to the act gives local authorities greater flexibility to direct utility-scale projects away from our productive farmland.

The enactment of SB 618 on January 1, 2012, strengthens the Williamson Act by providing a significant incentive to encourage solar photovoltaic developers to locate their energy facilities on the least productive soils. The rescission of Williamson Act contracts for a solar-use easement under SB 618 eliminates the nonrenewal period of nine or 19 years, and there is no need to mitigate for the principles of compatibility if the land is considered nonprime and meets other eligibility requirements. It also provides a significant reduction in the risk of litigation for violation of Williamson Act cancellation provisions. The cost of a contract rescission under this program is also half the amount required for a cancellation, if the county can make judicially sustainable findings under GC section 51282.

Recently, the Farm Bureau provided county governments with a sample Solar-Use Easement Agreement along with a Summary Explanation of the new law, an implementation Checklist and a list of Frequently Asked Questions that are all intended to assist in the cost-effective implementation of this important new program.

By creating an alternative method for exiting a Williamson Act contract with the simultaneous creation of a Solar-Use Easement Agreement on marginally productive or physically impaired land, the Legislature has protected the integrity of the Williamson Act and has protected our most productive agricultural land from conversion to utility-scale electrical power facilities.

Many rural California counties are experiencing a 21st century land rush, as utility companies and independent solar developers seek entitlements to locate photovoltaic projects, many of which are proposed on our most productive soils. SB 618 will help ensure that a short-term focus on renewable energy objectives does not come at the unnecessary expense of farmland needed to sustain a reliable, long-term food supply.

The Farm Bureau is adamant that California farmland protection laws must not be sacrificed in a rush to expedite the development of utility-scale renewable energy projects. The state is finally getting serious about “smart growth,” including infill and higher density residential and mixed-use developments that are transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly. Such developments will reduce greenhouse gases and protect our irreplaceable and finite supply of farmland. But we cannot at the same time simply look the other way and allow leap-frog solar sprawl on prime farmland in exclusive agricultural zones, and most certainly not on Williamson Act contracted land.

--John Gamper is California Farm Bureau director of taxation and land use.

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