Sonoma County Proposes Revisions to the Rules for Williamson Act Contracts

The Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department has drafted new rules to be applied to properties in Williamson Act agricultural preserve contracts.  The proposed 49 pages of rules will replace the existing seven pages of rules that were originally adopted in 1970.  Much of the new document clarifies existing state law and county policies, but a few new recommendations are proposed.  There will be an increase in the amount of farm income to qualify for agricultural preserve on prime land from $200 per acre to $800 per acre.  Also, a minimum of 50 percent of the prime land or six acres, whichever is more, has to be continuously used for agricultural production.  The minimum parcel size to qualify for an agricultural preserve on prime land is 10 acres while on non-prime land the minimum is 40 acres.
The rules also eliminate some existing land uses that have been considered compatible with contracted land such as forestry, raising of horses, residential uses and quasi-public uses, but new allowed uses are added such as raising ornamental trees, apiaries and irrigated pasture crops.
Wineries and other agriculture processing faculties will still be permitted but will be classified as “compatible uses” rather than as straight agricultural uses.  As such, they will be limited to occupying no more than five percent of the parcel area or five acres, whichever is less.
The first public hearing on the proposed rules was held on January 20, 2011 in front of the Sonoma County Planning Commission.  There will be at least one more Planning Commission hearing before the rules are considered by the Board of Supervisors because so many people showed up to comment on the new rules.
The controversy surrounding this revision is warranted as all Williamson Act contracts have a clause which allows for revisions and binds the landowner to comply no matter how the rules are amended in the future.  Even more troublesome is the fact that the landowners who are under contract and facing greater restrictions on the uses permitted on their property may not reap the benefit or purpose of being under contract.  The Williamson Act program itself is in peril.  Governor Jerry Brown has targeted the funds typically provided to counties and cities across California to subsidize the tax breaks that these property owners receive as a place to reduce the deficit.  If the program funding is eliminated on a state level, many counties will have to decide whether they can continue to forego the tax revenue without any chance of subsidy from the State.
For more information on land use issues in Sonoma County contact Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty at [email protected]
Copyright Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty at www.lexvini.com