What is an Agricultural Preserve?
An Agricultural Preserve is an area of at least 100 acres designated by the Board of Supervisors within which a landowner may enter into a contract with the County to receive reduced property taxes in exchange for maintaining the land in agricultural or open space use. The process for designating Agricultural Preserves and entering into Land Conservation Act contracts are contained in the Land Conservation Act, often referred to as the “Williamson Act” adopted by the state legislature in 1965.
What is a Williamson Act contract?
A Williamson Act contract is an agreement between the property owner and the County that provides the property owner with reduced property taxes in exchange for maintaining the land in commercial agricultural use for a period of 10 years. Land under a Williamson Act contract is often referred to as an “Ag Preserve” on the Assessor’s Parcel Maps. There are two types of Williamson Act contracts: Type I for prime agricultural land planted in permanent crops such as grapes, apples, olives or pears; and Type II for non-prime grazing or open-space lands. The contract is binding on all subsequent property owners. The contracts automatically renew for a new 10-year period each year that a tax benefit is received, unless a Notice of Non-renewal is filed by either the landowner or the County and recorded.
What is a substandard parcel?
A “substandard parcel,” is any separate legal parcel under a Williamson Act contract that does not meet the minimum size requirements for the contract, and consequently does not qualify to be in the Williamson Act program. In some cases, multiple Assessor Parcel Numbers (APNs) may comprise one legal parcel due to different tax areas or uses of the land.
What are the minimum parcel size requirements to qualify for a California Land Conservation Act (Williamson Act) contract?
Among other things, to qualify for the tax benefit under a Williamson Act contract, each separate legal parcel under the contract must be a minimum of either 10 acres for prime agricultural land, or 40 acres in size for non-prime or open space land.
What is a Prime or Type I contract?
A Type I contract is generally approved only on lands that are primarily planted in a permanent crop such as apples, grapes or pears. To qualify for a Prime (Type I) contract, the parcel must be 10 acres or more in size and at least 50 percent of the land must be planted in a permanent crop that meets minimum income requirements. Some properties may have initially been used for grazing lands under a Type II contract, but have since been planted in permanent crops and may be eligible for a Type I contract with a lower minimum parcel size (10 acres).
What is a Non-prime or Type II contract?
A Type II contract is generally approved on non-prime agricultural or open space lands that are primarily used for grazing, hay farming, horse breeding, timber production, open space or any combination of agricultural and open space uses, including permanent crops. To qualify for a Non- Prime (Type II) contract, the parcel must be 40 acres or more in size and at least 50 percent of the land must be used for a qualifying agricultural use noted above.
Can the County remove my land from the Williamson Act program?
Yes. In response to an audit by the state, the County must file for non-renewal of contracts for substandard parcels that do not meet the minimum parcel sizes. The County will first issue a courtesy notice to affected landowners and then serve affected landowners a formal Notice of Non-Renewal that will be recorded prior to the end of this year (2013). Once recorded, the contract will phase out after the 10-year term and no longer be effective on January 1, 2023.
Must I comply with the Contract during the phase out period?
Yes. As required under state law, the terms of the contract remain in effect during the 9-year phase-out period. The land must remain in a qualifying agricultural or open space use, the land must meet the minimum income requirements for the type of contract and the uses of land are limited to those described in the County Uniform Rules for Agricultural Preserves (PDF: 219 kB).
Must land under a Williamson Act contract be devoted to an agricultural and/or open space use?
Yes. State law requires that the land under contract must be devoted to commercial agricultural use and/or open space use, consistent with the terms of the Contract and the County Uniform Rules for Agricultural Preserves (PDF: 219 kB). Generally, this means that at least 50% of the land is actually used for agricultural and/or open space uses, depending on the type and size of the land.
What can I do to keep my substandard parcel under the contract?
If the parcel is at least 10 acres and is planted in a permanent crop, such as grapes, apples, pears, olives or prunes, then you may be eligible for a new Type I contract. You must have at least 6 acres or 50 percent of the land planted and meet the minimum income requirements for the type of crop as described in the County Uniform Rules for Agricultural Preserves (PDF: 219 kB).
If you own adjacent lands that can be combined or reconfigured to meet all contract requirements, including the minimum parcel size requirement, then there are several ways that you may be able to bring your property into conformance with the contract and retain the tax benefits:
- Substandard parcels can be merged with an adjacent parcel(s) under the same ownership to meet the minimum parcel size requirements (known as Voluntary Merger).
- Land from an adjacent parcel(s) can be added to a substandard parcel to meet the minimum parcel size requirements through a Lot Line Adjustment, if possible. You must file the application for a Lot Line Adjustment and then file for new contracts on the reconfigured parcels.
- File a subdivision application to reconfigure existing parcels to meet the minimum lot size requirements for the contract. Subdivisions to reconfigure lots must also meet minimum lot size required under the parcel’s zoning. Once the subdivision is recorded, you must file for new contract on the reconfigured parcels.
What is the deadline for bringing my parcel into conformance?
You can bring your parcel into conformance at any time during the contract term. If you submit documentation that the parcel meets the minimum qualifications or file an application to bring your parcel into conformance with the minimum parcel size requirements prior to October 1, 2013, then the County will withdraw the Notice of Non-renewal prior to the end of the year and the contract will remain in effect while the application is processed. If you do not file any application to bring the parcel into compliance by the deadline, the contract will begin phase-out on January 1, 2014. However, if your parcel can meet the contract requirements at a later date, you can always apply for a new contract. Recordation of a new contract replaces the contract in phase-out.
What happens if I am unable to meet the minimum parcel size requirements?
If you do not bring the property into conformance with the contract, then the contract will not renew on January 1, 2014. As a result, the contract will no longer be in effect on January 1, 2023 following phase out period. (The year in which non-renewal is initiated (2013) is counted as ‘year one’ of the contract’s ten year term.)
Because a substandard parcel does not comply with the terms of the Williamson Act contract, permits on substandard parcels will be limited to agricultural structures and repairs or remodels involving no expansion or changes in use. New structures or expansion of existing structures are not permitted, except for agricultural purposes. State law provides substantial penalties (equal to 25% of the unrestricted value of the land) for new structures or additions on parcels in breach of the Williamson Act contract.
May I protest the County’s initiation of non-renewal for my property?
Yes. Once a Notice of Non-renewal is served by the County, you may submit a written protest to the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors. Forms for the protest will be provided by the County with the Notice of Non-Renewal. Filing a protest prior to November 15th will retain your tax benefit for three years, until there are less than six years remaining of the contract’s term. (Current Uniform Rules provide only 15 days from the date on the Notice of Nonrenewal, however, Permit Sonoma is going to the Board on May 7th, 2013 to propose changes to the Uniform Rules to extend the deadline and streamline the process.)
How much will my taxes increase if the contract is phased out?
In general, during phase-out, property taxes will increase during the remaining term of the contract. At the end of the phase-out period, property taxes are based on the unrestricted value of the land as provided in state law based on Proposition 13, rather than the lower values based on the agricultural income of the property allowed for land under a Williamson Act contract. For more information on the potential changes to your property taxes, please contact the Sonoma County Assessor’s Office with your Assessor Parcel Number(s) (APN).
Where can I get more information?
A public workshop on the substandard parcels phase out program was held on Friday, May 10, 2013 at Permit Sonoma.
At the workshop planners worked with the public researching what can be done to bring the parcel into compliance with the Agricultural Preserve program.
After the public workshop, the County served the notices of Non-Renewal to landowners with parcels that do not meet the minimum parcel size requirements for the Type of contract.
Will I need to hire a consultant to help me file an application?
Some types of applications are easily prepared by property owners, while other require a licensed professional engineer or land surveyor as noted below. Application forms and handouts describing the process for various types of planning applications are available or at Permit Sonoma’s offices located at 2550 Ventura Avenue Santa Rosa, CA. The required application forms are listed by application type and must be submitted with all property owners’ signatures (or authorization from all property owners) to Permit Sonoma with the required filing fees as noted below:
Generally, a property owner can file an application to merge parcels by completing the Voluntary Merger application forms and submitting payment of the required filing fee at the Permit Sonoma offices. A current title report issued within 60 days of filing is required, which can be obtained at a local title company. Most landowners, with assistance from Permit Sonoma staff can file these applications without outside consultant assistance. Project Review Fees.
New or Replacement Contracts
Application forms to replace a non-prime contract with a new contract for prime agricultural land (requiring a 10-acre minimum parcel size) requires several forms including a Land Conservation Plan and Agricultural Income Statement describing the qualifying agricultural use of the property. A Site Plan and current title report(s) issued within 60 days of filing are required, along with the Planning Application, Proposal Statement and Supplemental Questionnaire and other application materials listed on the handout for Agricultural Preserve New or Replacement Contracts. Most landowners, with assistance from Permit Sonoma staff, can file these applications without outside consultant assistance. Project Review Fees.
Lot Line Adjustment
Lot Line Adjustments require new legal descriptions of each parcel and a site plan prepared by a licensed Civil Engineer or Land Surveyor along with a current title report issued within 6 months of filing. You can find qualified surveying and engineering firms or consult with a land use attorney or planning consultant by searching the internet or the phone book. For current fee for a Minor Lot Line Adjustment See Project Review Fees. Applications for Major Lot Line Adjustments are processed At-Cost* and can vary depending upon the complexity of the application. The application fees do not include private engineering or land surveyor costs for assisting property owners with preparing the applications for submittal.
Subdivisions require legal descriptions for each new parcel provided on a tentative parcel map and final maps which must be prepared by a licensed Registered Civil Engineer or Land Surveyor. Additional application materials are required as listed in the handout for Subdivisions. The fees for subdivision applications are highly variable and depend on individual circumstances and will be determined case-by-case in consultation with Permit Sonoma staff. The application fees do not include private engineering or land surveyor costs for assisting property owners with preparing the applications for submittal.
*This type of application is charged At-Cost which means projects applicants will be charged for the actual cost of processing their applications. A minimum nonrefundable fee is required at the time the application. After staff review of the application, a preliminary estimate of costs will be provided to the applicant if the costs are expected to exceed the minimum fee. In this case an additional fee will be required prior to completion of work on the project.
What are the qualifying criteria for a Type I contract with a 10 acre minimum?
To qualify for a Type I contract with a 10 acre minimum parcel size, you must meet three criteria:
- Legal parcel must be at least 10 acres in size.
- 50 percent of the land or at least 6 acres, whichever is greater, must be planted in a permanent crop such as grapes, olives, apples, or pears.
- You must meet the minimum income requirements for the type of crop.