California environmentalists and farmers rejoiced yesterday when Gov. Gray Davis (D) restored $40 million in funding for farmland and open-space protection under the Williamson Act. Together, farmers and enviros had lobbied heavily against the proposed elimination of the act, under which the state pays back counties for property taxes lost when landowners are given lower property assessments in exchange for maintaining their land as agriculture or open space for a decade. The tax breaks for farmers range from 20 percent to 75 percent each year, and about 16 million acres (or more than half the state’s farmland) are enrolled in the program. The act was passed in 1965, after some 1 million acres of productive farmland were lost to the maw of urban sprawl in the 1950s and ’60s. “The fact that you can go out into the rural countryside and it’s still largely intact and largely preserved for agricultural use — that is really where the true benefits of the Williamson Act are most noticed,” said California Conservation Department Assistant Director Erik Vink.
Get Grist in your inbox