Program Background: The Williamson Act, also known as the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. In return, landowners receive property tax assessments which are much lower than normal because they are based upon farming and open space uses as opposed to full market value. The Department of Conservation assists in the interpretation of the Williamson Act related government code. The Department also researches, publishes and disseminates information regarding the policies, purposes, procedures, and administration of the Williamson Act according to government code. Participating counties and cities are required to establish their own rules and regulations regarding implementation of the Act within their jurisdiction. These rules include but are not limited to: enrollment guidelines, acreage minimums, enforcement procedures, allowable uses, and compatible uses.
Agricultural Preserves--An agricultural preserve defines the boundary of an area within which a city or county will enter into Williamson Act contracts with landowners. The boundary is designated by resolution of the board or city council having jurisdiction. Agricultural preserves must generally be at least 100 acres in size.
Williamson Act Contracts—formed between a county or city and a landowner for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. Private land within locally-designated agricultural preserve areas are eligible for enrollment under a contract. The minimum term for contracts is ten years. However, since the contract term automatically renews on each anniversary date of the contract, the actual term is essentially indefinite. Landowners receive substantially reduced property tax assessments in return for enrollment under a Williamson Act contract. Property tax assessments of Williamson Act contracted land are based upon generated income as opposed to potential market value of the property.
Farmland Security Zone Contracts--FSZ Contracts are voluntarily entered into between a County/City and the landowner for 20 years as opposed to the 10 years for a standard Williamson Act contract. Farmland Security Zones offer landowners greater property tax reduction. Land restricted by a FSZ contract is valued for property assessment purposes at 65% of its Williamson Act valuation, or 65% of its Proposition 13 valuation, whichever is lower. Cities and special districts that provide non-agricultural services are generally prohibited from annexing land enrolled under an FSZ contract. Lastly, school districts are prohibited from taking FSZ lands for school facilities.
Subventions: Historically, the Department of Conservation would review and verify acreage per county under contracts, and through the State Controller, would then pay participating cities and counties an established subvention per acre enrolled in the program to offset the city or county’s foregone property tax revenues. Cities and counties were eligible to receive $5 per acre of prime agricultural land enrolled in the program and $1 per acre of non-prime land. Farmland Security Zone lands generated $8 per acre. The total subvention funding in the final year of appropriation was approximately $40 million dollars. Considering the State Budget crisis of 2007-2008, the Legislature, through a series of bills, fully eliminated subvention payments in fiscal year 2010-11. To date, all property tax revenue loss or foregone by counties is not compensated by the State.
Expiration or Termination of Contract
- Nonrenewal--A landowner or the city/county initiates a Notice of Nonrenewal for the entire contract or a portion of the contracted land, which begins a nine-year count down to the expiration of the contract for standard contracts, or a 19 countdown for Farmland Security Zone contracts. The land is subject to all the requirements of the contract until it expires. To apply for nonrenewal of a contract, a landowner must initiate the process through their local Planning or Community Development Department.
- Cancellation--A landowner must submit an application to the City or County requesting the contract be cancelled for a portion or the entirety of the contracted area. For questions regarding cancellations, contact your local Planning Department.
- Easement Exchange--Williamson Act easement exchange legislation became effective January 1, 1998. It provides a voluntary rescission process for local entities and landowners to cancel the Williamson Act contract and simultaneously dedicate a permanent agricultural conservation easement on other land. A board or council must make specified findings in order to cancel the contract. The land to be placed under easement must be of equal size or larger than the Williamson Act contracted land. In addition, the value of the easement parcel must be equal to or greater than the cancellation fee required to cancel the contract.
- Public Acquisition of Contracted Land--A public acquisition refers to the acquisition of land located within an agricultural preserve or under a Williamson Act or Farmland Security Zone contract. Only a public agency or person who has specific authority to acquire land through eminent domain may use this method. If eminent domain authority is not used, the land may still be acquired by the public agency, but the contract will remain in force and continue to restrict the use of the land.
- Material Breach—A material breach is defined as an action on land subject to a Williamson Act contract as a commercial, industrial or residential building(s), that exceeds 2,500 square feet that is not permissible under the Williamson Act, contract, local uniform rules or ordinances, and which was permitted or built after January 1, 2004. If the city or county determine a material breach exists, one option for correcting the breach is termination of the portion of the contract that is not in compliance, and a monetary penalty of 25% of the unrestricted fair market value of the affected portion of the land.
- A City's Refusal of Succession of a Williamson Act Contract--When a city annexes land that is subject to a Williamson Act contract, the local agency formation commission shall determine whether the city may exercise its option to not succeed the rights, duties, and powers of the county with regard to the existing contract. However, this can only occur in very specific situations and requires further reading of the statute to determine whether this option would apply.
Biennial Williamson Act Reports: Reports and Statistics (ca.gov)
Governing Statutes: Codes: Code Search (ca.gov)