A handful of prominent Valley families stand to lose big if tax breaks under the state's 47-year-old farm preservation program are scaled back.
The Williamson Act, which cuts property taxes for landowners who agree to keep their land in agriculture, is on the chopping block in Fresno County.
Some county leaders believe they no longer can afford to offer the tax benefit, at least not all of it, because it comes at the expense of public services.
Last year, about 14,000 county parcels benefitted from the Williamson Act, worth nearly $23 million, more than in any other California county.
But, according to a Bee review of county property tax records, half of the total tax breaks given out under the program went to roughly 250 big landowners. About a dozen enjoyed tax reductions greater than $100,000. By comparison, the majority of landholders in the program saw reductions well under $1,000.
Any changes to the Williamson Act, which are being mulled by the Board of Supervisors this month, will have the greatest impact on these big property owners.
Many of them -- owners of the San Joaquin Valley's most productive orchards, vineyards and dairies -- argue that their farms can't weather an additional tax burden. Others beg to differ.
"The small family farmers might need a tax break. They're the ones struggling to make ends meet. But for the big ones, this (program) doesn't make a difference," said Supervisor Henry Perea, a critic of the Williamson Act and among those leading the charge to roll it back. "The Williamson Act has just taken a handful of very wealthy people and made them richer."
$250,000 in breaks
According to the review of property tax records, the biggest beneficiaries of the Williamson Act include the Fresno-area Britz family.
The family and its partners received at least $250,000 in tax reductions last year. Exactly how much the family and its partners saved is hard to know because their properties are listed under different names, and they declined several requests to comment.
The Britz family runs a number of farm-related businesses. It's perhaps best known for the production of fertilizer.
Batth Farm's Kanwarjit Batth of Caruthers, farmer Paul Singh of Caruthers, a San Jose trust under the name James Rose and the family-run Maddox Dairy of Riverdale also rank among the biggest recipients of county tax breaks under the Williamson Act.
Growers Gerawan Farming Inc. of Fresno, Terra Linda Farms of Riverdale and Terranova Ranch Inc. of Helm were near the top of the list as well.
"I know there's a lot of pressure on the city and the county. We all want good services," said Don Cameron, general manager of Terranova Ranch. "But none of us like to see taxes increase. Every added expense for us does make a difference."
The California Farm Bureau Federation praises participation in the Williamson Act by large landholders as well as small ones.
The program ensures adequate food supplies and provides an economic anchor for local communities, said John Gamper, the federation's director of taxation and land use.
"You can say it's a tax benefit, but there is something given in return," Gamper said. "Having these large landowners put thousands of acres under (conservation) contract is a huge benefit for the county by protecting agriculture."
The Williamson Act, formally called the California Land Conservation Act, was passed in 1965 to help keep development off productive farmland.
Under the program, counties and landholders voluntarily enter into contracts in which the landowner commits to preserving property and the county adjusts the owner's tax bill. (The value of the Williamson Act property, for tax purposes, is computed by determining the land's farming income potential, not its market value, and generally results in a lower tax.)
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