A bureaucratic hurdle could diminish the amount of green space in Contra Costa

Contra Costa County, once brimming with orchards and ranchlands, is now turning a distinct shade of gray: dotted with cities, highways and encroaching developments.

One of the only mechanisms to slow the growing sprawl is a little-known law that provides tax relief to landowners who commit to keeping their land for open space or agricultural use.

The state law, known as the Williamson Act, passed in 1965 in the face of heavy development across California. It was meant to discourage “premature and unnecessary conversion of open space to urban use,” even as the state grew and modernized.

In Contra Costa, however, the program has essentially been mothballed, with potentially serious consequences for open space in the county, a civil grand jury report found.

“Basically it keeps your property taxes lower so you can produce your product and not go out of business,” said Sue Russo, manager of the Alameda County Farm Bureau–a local nonprofit working to promote the protection of farms, forests and ranches — and the Williamson Act.

Across the state, which has estimated the need for 2.5 million additional housing units, land is going toward housing and developments are appearing in places they never have been before. Contra Costa has doubled in population since 1970, to 1.1 million residents, and in that time, hillsides turned into housing developments.

The Williamson Act offered a sizable incentive to landowners to buck the urbanization trend: a reduction in property taxes of as much as 20% to 75%. With land valuations skyrocketing, property taxes in many cases have grown in hand.

Although it is a state law, administration of the Williamson Act falls to local governments. In Contra Costa, the agency in charge is the Department of Conservation and Development (DCD). The department receives applications for agricultural contracts under the act, which they are then tasked with processing and recommending for approval to the board of supervisors.

The Contra Costa civil grand jury found that, in reality, this hasn’t occurred in years. The last successful Williamson Act contract, also known as an “agricultural contract,” was processed five years ago in 2018.

The grand jury report’s indicated the county failed to respond promptly, or at all, to applicants, despite a lower volume of applications than in other counties. The report also noted that the application fee for an agricultural contract is $2,000.


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