California's rural landscapes are some of the most
productive farmlands in the world. However, some of the qualities
that make these lands suitable for farming--sunshine and wide open
spaces--also make them attractive for another kind of
"farming": solar and wind farms. In recent years, the
conflict between farming and renewable energy production has grown
more pronounced in the state.
Central to this conflict is the California Land Conservation Act of
1965, generally known as the Williamson Act (Gov't Code
The purpose of the Williamson Act is "the discouragement of
premature and unnecessary conversion of agricultural land to urban
uses." It achieves this goal by allowing cities and counties
to establish agricultural preserves. Within these preserves,
landowners can voluntarily enter into contracts with the city or
county restricting their land to agricultural use. The contracts
generally have an initial term of ten years, and are automatically
"renewed" each year for a new ten-year term.
In exchange for signing these contracts, landowners receive
significantly reduced property valuations for property tax. Instead
of being assessed at full value, the land is assessed based on its
restricted use. Landowners who want their valuations further
reduced can sign up for Farmland Security Zone contracts, which
generally have a term of 20 years and impose greater restrictions
in exchange for an additional 35 percent reduction in
In the last year, the tension between renewable power developers
and Williamson Act advocates has been intensifying. Driven by
recent legislation requiring California utilities to achieve 33
percent renewable power by 2020, solar and wind companies are
aggressively looking for sites where they can build utility-scale
power generation facilities, and have increasingly turned their
sights onto agricultural lands, including those covered by
Williamson Act contracts.
Williamson Act contracts limit use of the land to agricultural and
"compatible" uses. Each city or county adopts its own
rules on what uses are compatible, subject to minimum requirements.
Some counties explicitly identify renewable power projects as a
compatible use. Others impose significant restrictions or do not
authorize renewable power projects at all. To build solar or wind
facilities on a site covered by a Williamson Act contract, a
landowner has the following options:
Design the facility to be "compatible" with
Submit a notice of nonrenewal and wait for the term of the
contract to expire;
Petition for cancellation of the contract;
Seek to convert the contract to a solar use easement, pursuant
to recent legislation; or
If circumstances permit, have the land acquired by an energy
utility through condemnation (or acquisition in lieu of eminent
Each of these options poses significant challenges. Many cities
and counties are resistant to the idea that renewable power
facilities are "compatible" with agricultural use.
Non-renewal is always an option, but the land will not be available
for nine years or more. Immediate cancellation of a contract is
often quite difficult to obtain. Conversion to a solar use easement
is only available for "marginally productive or physically
impaired land." And condemnation is only an option in rare
Even if a landowner convinces the city or county to cancel a
contract or find that a proposed use is compatible, the decision
can be challenged in the courts. A recent case involves the
California Farm Bureau, which filed a lawsuit late last year in
Fresno Superior Court challenging the County's decision to
cancel certain Williamson Act contracts to allow for solar
Resolving the growing tension between renewable development and the
Williamson Act will not be easy. But there are a number of
important steps that can be taken to reduce friction and enable
renewable energy companies to achieve their goals more quickly:
Develop strong relationships with the responsible cities and
counties, the Department of Conservation, and the advocates of
farmland preservation, including the state and county farm
Work with cities and counties to ensure that solar and wind
development are included on their lists of compatible uses, subject
to reasonable conditions;
Design projects to comply with the criteria for compatible uses
set forth in the statute and contracts, to the extent
Ensure that petitions for cancellation specifically address the
criteria set forth in the statute and contracts; and
Explore additional legislative solutions to help achieve the
proper balance between two critical goals of the State of
California: preserving farmland and expanding production of
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guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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