Keep the Williamson Act, with upgrades

 

The Williamson Act
– a 1965 state law that tries to preserve farm land and open
space through tax breaks – is facing a murky future for two
reasons.
The Williamson Act – a 1965 state law that tries to preserve farm land and open space through tax breaks – is facing a murky future for two reasons.

First, the state budget crunch makes repealing the act a juicy temptation for politicians hungry for new revenue sources. Second, it turns out that many loophole landowners may be undeservedly getting the tax break.

It’s important to look at the two issues separately. The state, despite its insatiable appetite for more money, should not repeal the Williamson Act.

The law serves an important purpose in preserving land for agriculture (parcels must be at least 10 acres) and open space (parcels must be at least 40 acres). Owners of parcels of this size – especially in San Benito County – frequently face strong economic incentives to develop their land.

Particularly here, one of the last bastions of rural life and scenery in the area, the Williamson Act is an important tool to help offset some of those development incentives.

As far as Williamson Act cheats – the loophole landowners – are concerned, we don’t need to keep them. We urge county officials to take the following steps to right the Williamson Act ship:

Spell out in clear, easy-to-understand language the guidelines for eligibility for a Williamson Act tax break.

Hire an outside auditing firm to review every property in the county with a Williamson Act contract. The auditor would be paid a fee based on the unpaid tax revenue it uncovers. Owners of properties not in compliance should immediately lose their eligibility, but should not have to repay past property taxes they would have owed without the Williamson Act tax break.

Require Williamson Act property owners to file a sworn statement each year acknowledging that their property still meets the eligibility requirements. The statement – just like on everyone’s federal income tax returns – should be sworn to be true, under the penalty of perjury.

Under this plan, loophole landowners – those who have used the Williamson Act to get a tax break while the rest of us have paid our fair share of property taxes – won’t have to pay back taxes, but will be paying full fare in the future.

The county will know with certainty that it is properly administering this important tax break. And farmers and owners of large open space – and those of us who live near them – will continue to benefit from this important program.

The bottom line? Keep the Williamson Act; lose the loophole landowners.

Leave your comments