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San Francisco Chronicle

Editorial: Don’t pave California’s pastures

Gov. Jerry Brown shows no fear in offering a combo-plate solution to fix California’s disastrous finances. He has put billions in cuts and new taxes on the table and even suggested taking away cell phones from thousands of state workers. There’s one proposal he should leave off the list of cuts: a subsidy to conserve farmlands.

For a state with a $25.4 billion hole in its budget, it’s easy to miss this tiny $10 million item. But eliminating it will cause hardship for the state’s rural counties and invite sprawl where suburbia meets California’s farms and cattle ranches. Dumping the program goes against a host of state policies to conserve open areas, encourage agriculture and push smart-growth rules.

Since 1965, Sacramento has bankrolled the Williamson Act, which offers agricultural operations a tax break to keep their croplands and orchards in use. Under the program, farmers and ranchers sign a 10-year contract and receive a lower property tax assessment.

Without the break, a county assessor could tax a 50-acre walnut orchard at a much higher rate if the land were a candidate for a big-box shopping mall or Shady Acres subdivision. One study found that a third of the farmers enrolled in the program would quit operations and sell without the tax break.

The program has been a bargaining chip in past debates dating back a decade. Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, suspended the payments in 2009 and reduced its size from $35 million per year to $10 million. Now the Brown team wants to cancel even this amount.

No budget item is untouchable, the argument goes, and even one that touches on environmental, planning and farming concerns shouldn’t get a pass. Also, if counties want to stop sprawl and save farmland, they should find the money in their own budgets and not lean on Sacramento to bail them out. After all, the $10 million cost isn’t that much, so how can this be a problem? There’s also a political factor because farm country votes Republican and the new governor is a Democrat.

There’s a further inducement to like the idea: If Brown’s highly controversial plan to junk local redevelopment programs goes through and Sacramento passes back programs for the locals to run, California’s 58 counties may end up with more tax money, some of which can plug the loss of Williamson money.

This thinking doesn’t work. Take away the tax breaks, and farm operations will gradually give way to development pressures, especially on the rim of fast-growing cities running from Sacramento to Fresno in the Central Valley. Few rural counties have redevelopment programs that would free up money if they were eliminated.

Losing the program also carries a local punch. San Mateo, Contra Costa and Marin counties take part in the conservation program. Without the state money, there will be homes, mini-malls and office parks displacing grazing cattle, dairies and flower farms on the edge of the Bay Area.

The threatened loss of the Williamson funds has conjured up a remarkable coalition. Environmental groups that want to stave off sprawl want to save the program. The state’s powerful Farm Bureau is also on combat alert. These two groups are often at loggerheads, but not on this issue. In his free-swinging approach to budget balancing, Brown has managed to change a pair of enemies into friends.

If the cut goes through, the damage won’t be pretty. Losing the state money will go straight to the bottom line for hard-pressed counties. The funds from Sacramento come without strings and are used for the basics such as police, fire and public health.

The top five loser counties are all among the nation’s most productive growing areas: Fresno, Kern, Tulare, Kings and San Joaquin, which together collected nearly half the state’s support in 2009. California risks losing its prominence as the top agricultural state, and a $36 billion per year state industry will suffer.

Another statistical measure shows how dependent smaller agricultural counties are on the state program. Tiny Glenn County collected 21 percent of its property tax money from the Williamson Act funds in 2009. Colusa, Lassen and San Benito counties hovered around the 10 percent figure. In these counties with relatively small tax bases, the conservation subsidy is a big slice of the revenue pie.

The change also plays havoc with two major state initiatives. One directs counties to concentrate future development to limit freeway congestion and confine development. The second is a set of pollution mandates set out in a groundbreaking measure to limit greenhouse gas emissions known as AB32. If Brown succeeds in demolishing farmland conservation subsidies, he’ll be setting loose growth pressures that undercut the goals of these two laws.

“Few programs we have in place work as efficiently to help farmers as this one,” said Jeremy Madsen, executive director the Bay Area conservation group Greenbelt Alliance.

Paul Wenger, a Modesto-area almond grower who is president of the Farm Bureau, said taxes on his 150 acres would push him to consider selling without the Williamson subsidy. “Without this program, you’ll be quicker to say ‘yes’ when developers come calling.”

Their advice on this topic is worth hearing. A modest law is working well and achieving its ends. Brown should save, not eliminate, this farmland conservation program.

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