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Williamson Act bill ignites property-rights debate

California farm groups are on opposite sides of land-use legislation.

Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

May 14, 2024

3 Min Read
Solar panels
Solar panels.Tim Hearden

Two leading California farm groups – Western Growers and the state’s Farm Bureau -- are on opposite sides of legislation that would make it easier for growers to get out of their Williamson Act contracts if they don’t have access to enough water.

The Williamson Act provides property tax relief to farmers and owners of open space in exchange for a 10-year agreement not to develop it or convert it to another use.

Assembly Bill 2528 by Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, would allow landowners in areas with critically impacted aquifers to cancel their contracts without paying the mandated fees of 12.5% of land values.

The bill is opposed by the California Farm Bureau, which fears the proposed law could accelerate the loss of prime farmland and reduce food supply. Opponents also argue the law could tempt economically stressed farmland owners to exit their contracts, leading to large areas of land being repurposed for solar or other renewable energy.

But Matthew Allen, Western Growers’ vice president of state government affairs, said his organization supports AB 2528, at least in concept. He says the problem of water availability will only grow in the San Joaquin Valley in coming years as groundwater pumping is restricted by state law.

“We want to see farmland continue on, but at the same time it’s an asset” that owners should be able to make maximum use of, Allen told Farm Press. “Private property may be an issue … That asset needs to survive, whether there’s solar placed on the property or there’s something else in the future.”

Backers say the bill would ensure that California meets its climate goals, protects groundwater, and improves air quality by increasing the availability of land for renewable energy projects, according to an Assembly bill analysis.

The bill unanimously passed the Assembly’s utilities and agriculture committees and was referred back to the Appropriations Committee after several amendments were added on the Assembly floor. The committee is set to consider the bill on Thursday, May 15.

Project sites needed

To achieve its goal of a net zero carbon economy by 2045, California must add more than 114,000 megawatts of new utility-scale renewables to the grid, including at least 70,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar, an Agriculture Committee bill analysis explains. However, finding sites for these projects is difficult, as most open land is in the desert, which is home to sensitive habitat and protected species and is federally protected, with a majority of lands precluded from solar development.

As the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires groundwater use to be brought to sustainable levels by the early 2040s, many agricultural businesses will lose their ability to farm and currently have no viable economic alternative, the analysis states.

Opponents, led by the Farm Bureau, say the bill would make the Williamson Act practically meaningless, and would essentially eliminate a state program that enables Williamson Act contract holders to obtain fee-free easements to install solar panels.

Allen counters that Williamson Act cancellations would still ultimately be up to counties.

“This is just opening up a pathway,” he said. “They still have existing processes they’ll have to go through, and it’s unknown how many folks will take advantage of this.”

The Agricultural Council of California, the Almond Alliance and the California Association of Winegrape Growers also support the bill.

“At the end of the day, the opposition has argued that this sort of changes everything,” Allen said. “We’ve said this creates an option for growers to utilize their private property. The final decision would be made by locals at the county level.”

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