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County stands by ag

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In the middle of a financial “pain plan,” San Luis Obispo County supervisors remained committed to preserving local Williamson Act contracts despite the drain they pose.

Under the Williamson Act, property owners who keep their land dedicated to agriculture production are allowed tax breaks from the county. Historically, the state has provided subventions to offset the lost local tax revenue, but state lawmakers chipped away at those revenues as the economy tanked, eliminating the program entirely in 2010.

On Sept. 27, county supervisors voted in favor of revisions to existing Williamson Act guidelines and against a state bill that would give the county more money, but at the expense of property owners.

The county loses about $3 million in property taxes because of Williamson Act contracts, but it used to recoup about $1 million from the state.

Supervisors unanimously (with the exception of Bruce Gibson, who abstained from the votes because he owns property under a Williamson Act contract) opted out of Assembly Bill 1265, which would allow the county to save money by reducing the length of Williamson Act contracts: knocking off one year for 10-year contracts and two years for 20-year contracts.

There are currently more than 1,100 Williamson Act contract holders, and while AB 1265 would allow the county to recoup about $1 million it’s lost in state subventions, it would translate to an average of $960 per year each contract holder would have to pay.

Members of the county’s agricultural community opposed the idea, saying it was overly costly for farmers and ranchers. The supervisors agreed.

“We’ll continue to be robust supporters of the Williamson Act,” Supervisor Adam Hill said, reflecting comments from the rest of the board.

County Administrator Jim Grant warned that despite the good show for agriculture, passing up the extra revenue means the county will have to continue shaving public services. For example, he said, the county this year will have to find ways to fund a Creston fire station as well as libraries.

In another vote, county supervisors adopted new criteria for Williamson Act contracts. Specifically, under the new rules, property owners will have to show they have 160 acres of productive dry farm land (the old criteria was 100 acres) or 320 acres of grazing land (the old criteria for this classification was also 100 acres).

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