Santa Clara County still does not have a clear policy to
regulate agriculture land and open space protected by the state
’s Williamson Act.
Santa Clara County still does not have a clear policy to regulate agriculture land and open space protected by the state’s Williamson Act. But 18 months after its last effort, a “stakeholders” group will try once more to establish explicit criteria to determine which properties deserve the act’s generous tax breaks.

The stakeholders’ group has three tasks: Settle on a definition of commercial agriculture to be approved by the county board of supervisors, something the county has never done; recommend criteria to apply to new Williamson Act applications; and develop criteria for existing properties.

That last element promises to be the most controversial. Decades of lax enforcement by the county led to a number of improper subdivisions, and a lot of parcel owners who face expulsion from the act or are stuck with a piece of property that they can’t develop. It takes nine years to escape the Act without penalty.

“It’s going to be nasty,” said Larry Matteson, of the Heritage Realty Group in Morgan Hill. “The interpretations have changed and I’ve dealt with several people that previously had approval. We have a lot of property that should not have been allowed that was subdivided in the 70’s and 80’s.”

Matteson’s solution, one shared by Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage, is to allow an amnesty for property owners whose land doesn’t meet Williamson requirements to withdraw with lighter penalties.

“They need to go through and do that now,” Matteson said. “Give everybody amnesty and let them pull out. If the county was at fault then there should be no penalty, or maybe 5 percent of a reasonable assessed value of the land.”

The state would have to approve of any amnesty program. A spokesman for the California Department of Conservation, which administers the act, said recently that the chances of an amnesty “are not good.”

The Williamson Act is the cause of much confusion for property owners and officials alike. Rachael Gibson, land-use policy aide to Gage, said Monday that she receives anywhere from two to seven calls a day about Williamson, mostly from prospective buyers who don’t understand the benefits and obligations attached to land purchased under the complicated act.

“Anytime you have an issue that resembles an onion you’re going to have several different layers of meaning,” Gibson said. “Ninety-nine percent of buyers don’t go looking for Williamson Act land, they’re looking for land to build their dream homes. They find out about the tax savings and that’s were the research stops. It should dawn on people that you can’t get something for nothing, but it doesn’t always.

“The big kicker is that we don’t know what to tell them. We have very vague state guidelines, but the conservation department is more than willing to penalize people found to be out of compliance.”

Gage has met with Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, who authored a recent bill stiffening the penalties for illegitimate Williamson properties to talk about a possible amnesty. Gibson said that lawmakers are concerned that an amnesty in one county could lead to a statewide domino effect.

“I’m aware of problems and my staff is working with interested parties to see if there’s a remedy,” Laird said. “One of the challenges is that if anything is done legislatively, it would apply to all 58 counties though it’s an effort to solve a problem unique to Santa Clara County. I think it’s important for the county to address the way it’s administering the act before we can see what kind of problem we have.”

Also known as the California Land Conservation Act, Williamson was passed in 1965 to preserve farmland and open spaces in California. Sixteen million acres – or about half of the state’s farmland – is under the Williamson contract, including more than 328,000 acres in Santa Clara County, about 40 percent of the county’s total land area.

Landowners who enter into a Williamson contract receive significant tax breaks in exchange for maintaining an agricultural enterprise or preserving open space.

Two property owners whose applications were rejected by the county planning department challenged the decisions in front of the board of supervisors last November, and county officials were finally inspired to take another shot at a permanent solution to the act’s vague requirements.

The stakeholders committee is comprised of Gage, Agriculture Commissioner Greg Van Wassenhove, other county officials and a collection of agricultural, environmental and homeowners groups.

County officials had hoped to start the stakeholders process in January and the committee will have to work under a somewhat tight time constraint. The applications are due in August, but Gibson said the county needs to have a clear policy in place before summer.

The first meeting is scheduled at 3pm Feb. 22 at the San Martin Lions Club Hall, 12415 Murphy Ave. The meeting is open to the public.

Reporter Matt King covers Santa Clara County for the Gilroy Dispatch and The Times. He can be reached at mking@gilroydisp atch.c om or 847-7240.

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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