Fresno County supervisors won't change rules for farmland subsidy

The Fresno BeeApril 22, 2014 

A commercial farming operation is not defined by the amount of agricultural product it sells, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors determined on Tuesday.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea asked supervisors to consider a recommendation by county Assessor Paul Dictos to place a retail value on crops to qualify farmland for Williamson Act tax reductions.

Perea said Dictos sent him an email noting his frustration upon realizing the supervisors were the only ones who could make that decision.

"I told him I would get it on the agenda and he could make his case," Perea said.

But the board decided not to make the change sought by Dictos.

The Williamson Act, a statewide program administered locally, gives counties the option of reducing property tax bills for farmers to encourage farmland preservation. Under the program, property owners agree contractually to farm their land for at least 10 years in exchange for having their property assessed at its agricultural value, not its higher market value.

Fresno County provides the most tax reductions under the Williamson Act of any California county.

But Dictos said some people are collecting subsidies while not farming.

"If somebody gets a subsidy from the county and is not producing food and fiber, he may be getting a gift of public funds," he told the supervisors.

Fresno County property owners can qualify for Williamson Act discounts if they own 20 acres of prime farmland, 40 acres of non-prime farmland or if the land has been actively used for farming in the past three years. Prime farmland has the best combination of characteristics -- soil quality, growing season, and moisture supply -- for producing food.

Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said she was concerned that the drought may take some land out of production for more than three years.

"With no water, there is a chance that nonprime ag land may go fallow for a couple years," she said.

The parcels qualify if they have a compatible agricultural use, such as a packing shed, said Alan Weaver, the county's public works and planning director.

He said county officials are looking for parcels that are not sufficient in size or not in agricultural production for three years.

Of 601 Williamson Act contracts audited between 2011 and 2013 by Fresno County, about 10% were found to be out of compliance with the Williamson Act, according to the planning department.

The most common violation -- in part because of how the contracts have been reviewed -- was property failing to meet minimum-size requirements. In many of these cases, property has been subdivided since the Williamson Act contract was established, the county planning department found.

Weaver said county planners continue to pursue potential violators.

Madera County rules require a commercial agricultural parcel to produce -- or be capable of producing from the sale of agricultural products -- a minimum gross annual income of $2,000, said Jamie Bax, a Madera County senior planner. The prime farmland minimum parcel size is 10 acres and non-prime is 40 acres. Tulare County sets the same minimum parcel sizes as Madera County, but like Fresno County attaches no values.

Following the meeting, Perea suggested that Dictos may have better luck getting the authority to require farm production minimums on qualified Williamson Act lands by going through the state Legislature.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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