Acquisition of Properties Covered by Williamson Act Agricultural Preserve Contracts

California’s Williamson Act, also known as the California Land Conservation Act of 1965 (Gov. Code § 51200 et seq.), provides that “it is the policy of the state to avoid, whenever practicable, the location of any state or local public improvements and improvements of public utilities, and the acquisition of land therefore, in agricultural preserves.”  The Williamson Act enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners which restrict the land use to agricultural or related open space use.  In return, the landowners receive property tax assessments which are much lower than normal because they are based upon farming and open space uses as opposed to full market value.  These contracts, called Williamson Act Contracts, are for a minimum term of ten years.  However, since the contract term automatically renews on each anniversary date of the contract, the actual term is essentially indefinite.

Early in the project planning process, public agency staff should determine if the land to be acquired is located within an agricultural preserve covered by the Williamson Act and, if so, is subject to a Williamson Act Contract.  This is often disclosed in the property’s title report.

If the project or property being considered for acquisition is located within an agricultural preserve or is covered by a Williamson Act contract, public agency staff will need to comply with state notice and findings requirements.  Generally, this means that the public agency must advise both the state Director of Conservation and the local governing body of its intention to consider the location of a public improvement within the preserve.  Gov. Code § 51291(b).  Moreover, staff must be mindful of the Williamson Act’s mandate prohibiting the agency from locating a public improvement within an agricultural preserve “based primarily on a consideration of the lower cost of acquiring land in an agricultural preserve” or where other land is available outside the preserve on which it is reasonably feasible to locate the public improvement.”  Gov. Code § 51292.  The Director of the California Department of Conservation is given the power to enforce these provisions by mandamus proceedings. Gov. Code § 51294.

When condemning an interest in land that is subject to a Williamson Act Contract, or acquiring said land in lieu of eminent domain for a public improvement, the contract “shall be deemed null and void” as to the interest actually being condemned or acquired, and valued as if the contract had never existed. Gov. Code § 51295. Moreover, if the remainder will be adversely affected by treating the contract in this manner, the value of that damage must be computed “without regard to the contract.” Once acquired, “the land actually taken shall be removed from the contract.” Id.

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