Agriculture and FarmlandProtectionPlan In 1998 California signed into law what is being called “Super Williamson Act”. It allows for the conversion of existing Williamson Act agreements into 20-year contracts, thereby forming ‘farmland security zones.’ In exchange for the extended term, landowners receive a package of additional benefits, including a 35% reduction in property taxes beyond the reduction calculated under traditional contracts. Other benefits include protection from annexation by cities and special districts, a reduced special tax rate for urban-related services, and a ban on school districts condemning and buying land in farmland security zones. There are no provisions for canceling contracts before the term expires. As a result of these longer contracts, additional funds are provided by the state to the counties to make up a portion of the lost tax revenues. Since its adoption eleven counties have applied to participate. In addition, the state has recently dramatically ramped up funding of its purchase of development rights program. Strategic Mapping in Delaware An unusual convergence of circumstances in Delaware as it began its farmland protection efforts turned out to be a blessing. Faced with an approved but unfunded state program and a legal requirement to map strategic farmland in the state before buying any development rights, the Delaware Department of Agriculture embarked on a strategic mapping exercise that still leads the nation and is an integral part of a booming (and now well-funded) PDR program. They modified the LESA (Land Evaluation and Site Assessment) system to suit an area-wide analysis as opposed to a site-specific analysis. It incorporates factors such as natural soils groups, availability of sewer, land use/land cover, percent of area in agriculture, agricultural investment and the presence of natural areas. The result is a map with five different colors indicating lowest to highest priority for farmland preservation in the agricultural portions of the state. The ‘color’ of the map area where a particular farm is located then corresponds to half of the points that farm scores on the PDR ranking system should it apply to sell an easement. The maps were the results of years of testing and public input. Using this method, state resources are directed to the most productive agricultural resources and operations that have the best chance of remaining viable. Delaware also has a situation in which agricultural zoning in its three counties is very weak and function largely as rural residential development zones. Individual counties show little willingness to do anything about the agricultural zones, nor do they contribute matching dollars to the state PDR program. However, since creating an ‘agricultural districts’ is the only way to realize tax benefits, right-to-farm protections, or to be eligible to sell an easement, district participation is extremely high and may, in fact, be functioning as ‘de facto’ agricultural production zoning. Matching state funds is accomplished with landowner discounts to their full easement values. (See Appendix IV for program description and strategic mapping criteria.) Responding Quickly to Save Critical Farms in Carroll County, Maryland Located within easy commuting distance of both Baltimore and Washington, DC, Carroll County, Maryland set a goal for itself in the late 1970’s of permanently protecting 100,000 acres of farmland. They enacted 1:20 cluster zoning (a change from 1:1 zoning) to stabilize the land base and began vigorous participation in the state purchase of development rights program. To date they have agricultural easements on over 33,000 acres. However, they discovered that the Columbia, MD 21
GeneseeCounty, New York state program could not respond quickly enough when prime land was at the critical point of changing ownership. The county’s response was the development of a ‘Critical Farms Program’. It functions as an enhancement to the state PDR program and guarantees a minimum easement value for farms that are being transferred. Applicants must be the contract purchasers or recent purchasers of a farm that qualifies for the state PDR program and that ranks high on the county’s preference formula. Based on an appraisal of the value of the easement, the county offers the new owner a payment of 75% of easement value for an option for the county to acquire the easement at the end of the five-year period. When the new owners receive the money for the option contract, they are obligated to put the farm in a state agricultural district and to offer to sell the easement to the state program for five years. If the state acquires the easement, the county is repaid the exact amount that was provided up-front (no-interest payment is required). The money is then recycled into the Critical Farms Program. At the end of five years, if the easement has not been purchased by the state, the farm owner has two options: repaying the County (with interest) for termination of the option agreement; or, accepting the easement as permanent with no additional payment from the county. Since it began in 1992, the Critical Farms Program has entered into 30 option contracts on 3,946 acres. So far almost all of easements have been purchased by the state and the remainder are in the pipeline. (See Appendix V for a copy of the application and the option contract.) Farmland Mitigation in the West Recently, two innovative approaches have been enacted to mitigate farmland loss. In 1995, the city of Davis, California, established an agricultural land mitigation requirement as part of a “Right to Farm and Farmland Preservation” ordinance. Adopting a “no net loss of farmland” approach, the Davis ordinance requires developers to permanently protect one acre of farmland for every acre of agricultural land they convert to other uses. Generally, developers place an agricultural conservation easement on land in another part of the city, although paying a fee may also satisfy mitigation. Protected farmland must meet certain requirements; for instance, it must contain soil comparable to the developed landand be located in one of the city’s agricultural zones. As the program has proceeded, payment in lieu of acres has been encouraged into order to allow the city to leverage state PDR funds to permanently protect farmland with easements. Several of the protection transactions were fee simple acquisitions of farms, which are then leased back to farmers, and the proceeds pumped back into the mitigation fund. (See Appendix VI for the Davis ordinance.) King County, Washington (on the edge of metropolitan Seattle) also uses a “no net loss” approach to farmland protection. In their case, it is applied to either of their two agricultural production zones. The zone containing their dairy farms is the most restrictive residentially (1:60) but the most conducive to commercial agriculture. The second zone, which contains mostly berry operations allows residential densities of one dwelling unit per thirty-five acres (1:35). Uses in these two zones are strictly limited to agricultural and the only building allowed must be clearly accessory to a production operation. Conversion to a non-agricultural use can 22 Agriculture and Community Development Services, Inc.