Tuesday, November 1, 2011

California helps rural landowners with new legislation.

Most people know farming is hard work. It is also extremely difficult for many people to survive economically from it. Many family farms in California, for example, lose money slowly every year until they are forced to sell their land. The California Land Conservation Act ("Williamson Act"), passed in 1965, aimed to increase the voluntary conservation of farmland by making it more economically feasible for landowners to keep farming.

In short, the Williamson Act allows landowners to enter into contracts with counties, in which the former promise not to develop their agricultural land in exchange for a lowered property tax assessment. If a property owner wants to end their Williamson Act contract and develop their land or sell it for development, they must pay a large sum of money to the state in cancellation fees.

When farmers have Williamson Act lands that have become financially infeasible to keep, they often sell to suburban developers. Senate Bill 618, provides another way for landowners to make money and assist the market for renewable energy. The bill also helps to curtail the pattern of suburban sprawl encroaching rural communities.

In recognition of the need for lands on which to produce and meet the state's new requirements regarding renewable energy, the legislature, in 2011, developed SB 618. Introduced by Lois Wolk of Davis, CA, and passed during the 2011 session, the bill protects farmland by allowing landowners to rescind their Williamson Act contracts if they place their lands under "solar-use easements," which is a new type of property interest created by the bill. Such easements, however, may only be acquired for marginally productive land, which is defined as land with significantly reduced agricultural productivity.

Many family farmers feel a strong connection to the land on which their family has been farming for generations, even if such farming is no longer feasible. SB 618 gives Californian landowners an alternative to selling their land to developers. In a way, the bill gives rural landowners a special place in the market for renewable energy.

The bill does have critics. One concern raised is conservation-based. Farmlands covered in solar projects are not equivalent in value to keeping the land as open space for habitat. Such development, many argue, does not meet the same conservation goals. These critics argue that further controls are needed to mitigate environmental degradation that may occur under the bill. For example, as the bill stands today, there is no requirement that landowners return the land to it's pre-solar-easement condition if they decide not to renew the solar-easement contract.

The Williamson Act Program has been adopted by 53 of California's 58 counties. Thousands of acres in California's most rural counties include Williamson Ac land. Thus, the impacts of SB 618 could be very far-reaching. Yet, counties must adopt the bill for it to be effective.

Several speculations can be made regarding the bill's effect on rural livelihoods. Perhaps most interesting, is the unique opportunity the bill provides for rural landowners to enter into the burgeoning market of renewable energy production. This exposes many areas, which have been economically stagnant since the decline of the lumber and fishing industries, to a new economic opportunity.

Another impact the bill may have is to give rural landowners another way in which to keep land, which has been in their family for generations, a little bit longer. In fact, given the projections in renewable energy markets, perhaps such lands will remain in those families for many more generations to come. For another post related to the Williamson Act, read here.

1 comment:

Courtney Taylor said...

I interned in Senator Wolk's office over the summer and was able to spend a significant amount of time working on SB 618. I found the bill to be a very creative way to direct solar development onto impaired lands and help California preserve our prime farmland for farming.

One of the biggest struggles we had was getting support for this bill from solar developers. Although the program provides an incentive for landowners to enter into solar-use easements if their land is physically impaired (for example, contamination from salt) and helps solar developers gain access to these lands, solar developers are still uneasy about the bill. In particular, solar developers are concerned about the definition of "physically impaired land" in the bill that allows for cancellation of Williamson Act contracts. There biggest concern is that this will be the new standard for solar development in California, meaning subsequent bills will include this language and make solar development more difficult.

Only time will tell if their fears will become reality. In my opinion, I think targeting these lands before we develop on prime farmland is a great start.