The Williamson Act, also recognized as the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, was established to permit eligible property owners to enter contracts with local governments for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agriculture or other related open space use. The objectives of the Williamson Act were identified to:
- protect agricultural resources,
- preserve open space land, and
- promote efficient urban growth patterns.
In return, the restricted parcels are assessed for tax purposes at a rate consistent with their actual use, farming and open space, as opposed of their potential full market value.
The Williamson Act in Santa Cruz County
According to the County of Santa Cruz Planning Department, to be eligible, land must meet the following criteria:
- The parcel must be zoned CA (Commercial Agriculture) and must be designated A (Agriculture) in the County General Plan.
- The parcel must be designated as an Agricultural Resource Type in the County General Plan. The most common resource types include the following:
- Type 1 – Viable agricultural land
- Type 2 – Limited agricultural lands
- Type 3 – Viable agricultural lands within the Coastal Zone.
- The parcel must meet the following minimum parcel size requirement: Types 1 and 3 (10 acres minimum); Type 2 (40 acres minimum).
If the land meets all of the above qualifications, the landowner can enter into the standard 10-year Williamson Act contract; however, in Santa Cruz, landowners can request to be considered for a 20-year contract, also known as a Farmland Security Zone. The contract is then renewed annually, maintaining the original contract term.
Parcels under the contract are rezoned with a combining zone district (-P); these zones are restricted from development activities, usually permitting only the “construction of a single-family dwelling and other structures directly associated with the commercial agricultural use of the property, such as barns or other agricultural outbuildings. Proposed uses or structures on parcels under contract are subject to a Compatibility Review (State Government Code 51238.1).” This zoning is reversed at the expiration of the contract.
In the event of the sale of the land, the Williamson Act contract runs with the land and is binding to all successors.
To cancel, or cancel the renewal of an existing contract, the landowner will need to obtain approval from the County Board of Supervisions with recommendations from the Agricultural Policy Commission and the Planning Commission. The process requires three public hearings. The reasoning to cancel a contract must be supported by substantial evidence – identifying new opportunities for another use of the land is not a sufficient reason. If the cancelation is approved, then the landowner may be required to pay a cancellation fee.
Benefits to the Landowner
To entice landowners to engage in the Williamson Act, there are financial benefits outlined for landowners.
The landowner experiences a decreased tax liability by 20 percent to 75 percent. In fact, many farmers in California reported a net profit equal to or less than their Williamson Act property savings since 2009, and many identified that without the act they would no longer be able to afford their parcel. This is a result of the land being assessed by its actual use rather its full market value.
In Santa Cruz County, for those under the Farmland Security Zone, their liability results in a greater reduction in land value assessment, in that a further 65% reduction from the lowered value based on the standard Williamson Act valuation method.
The contract is ongoing until the landowner chooses to cancel the renewal of the contract. In this case, during the nonrenewal process, the annual tax assessment continually increases each year until it is equivalent to current tax rates at the end of the nonrenewal period.
To learn more, landowners can contact the Santa Cruz County Assessor’s Office at 831-454-2002. To prepare to determine if you are eligible, identify the parcel’s zoning, general plan designation, parcel size, and agricultural resource type. This information can be found on the Planning Department website with the Geographic Information System (GIS) application.