As you probably know by now, last week, after a long political stalemate, the Governor finally signed a new California budget, but not before slashing another $489 million to create what we home budgeters might call “a cushion.” Along with more cuts to K-12 and higher education, child welfare services and health care for the poorest among us, Schwarzenegger used his blue pencil to all but eliminate funding for the 44-year-old Williamson Land Conservation Act, which preserves agricultural land and open space by offering California farmers and ranchers a break on their property taxes in exchange for agreeing not to develop the land for 10 or more years. More than 16 million acres across California are currently enrolled in the program.
Much of the debate around the Williamson Act funding concerns its impact on the environment, but what about the farmers and ranchers who benefit? While the immediate brunt of this cut hits cash-strapped counties square, forcing them to decide how to proceed without the State subsidy, the elimination of those tax breaks could disproportionately affect small family farms and ranchers who lease their lands as the tax burden becomes too great or the offers from developers become too enticing.
Tom Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards, whose Santa Barbara County vineyards are enrolled in the program, says that while losing the property tax easement wouldn't force him to sell off his land to the highest bidder, if his property taxes increase he may have to raise the price of the grapes he sells to other winemakers and, potentially, his own range of wines. But Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farm in Oxnard, whose stand is a fixture at the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers markets, sees things a bit differently. He backed out of the program years ago, saying he felt the tax benefits were so small and the limits of the program were so strict that it wasn't worth it. He says that, considering everything that was slashed from the budget, “it's not the worst thing.”