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Know the West

Farmland protection may dry up

  As California faces its largest budget deficit ever, a nearly 40-year-old farmland-protection program could go to the chopping block.

Reacting to a burst of mid-century sprawl, the state legislature passed the Williamson Act in 1965. Under the act, farmers promise to keep their land in commercial agriculture in exchange for county property tax breaks. The state then reimburses the counties for the lost tax revenue.

Today, the act protects 16 million of the state’s 30 million acres of agricultural land. Nathan Rosasco, president of the Tuolumne County Cattlemens’ Association, believes that the act helps farmers continue to farm, rather than sell out to developers. “Up here (near Yosemite), we’re trying to maintain open space,” he says. “People from the Bay Area and Central Valley are willing to pay astronomical prices for land.”

But as California wrestles with a $34.6 billion deficit, Governor Gray Davis, D, has proposed permanently slashing Williamson Act reimbursements to the counties, as well as education, health and human services and other popular programs.

“There are scores of programs that no one would like to see cut,” says the Department of Conservation’s Erik Vink, who administers the Williamson Act.

But farmers and environmentalists say that the savings from cutting the act — about $39 million, or 1 percent of the deficit — would be just a drop in the bucket. “The act has a low budgetary impact and high impact on farmland,” says Jenny Lester of the American Farmland Trust.

The state Legislature began debating the act this spring. Before signing the budget, the governor has the final say in what items will be cut.