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The Williamson Act: Agricultural Land Conservation and Solar Development

On March 11, the California Department of Conservation (“Department”) issued an opinion entitled “Considerations in Citing Solar Facilities on Land Enrolled in the Williamson Act” (“Opinion”). This provides suggestions to cities and counties for permitting solar development on agricultural land under contract in the California Land Conservation Act (“Williamson Act”).

The Williamson Act is a 1965 law aimed at promoting voluntary land conservation, with an emphasis on agricultural conservation.  (Government Code Section 51200 et seq.).  The Williamson Act provides property tax relief to owners of farmland and open-space land in exchange for an agreement that the land will not be developed or otherwise converted to another use for periods of 9 or 20 years.  Currently, approximately 17 percent of California’s total acreage (or approximately 16.6 million acres) is restricted by Williamson Act contracts.

Much of the State’s agricultural land is also prime for development of solar facilities, resulting in speculation regarding whether the construction of solar facilities can be a compatible use with land under Williamson Act contract, or whether Williamson Act contracts would prohibit solar development.  Currently, each county uses different definitions and qualifications for determining compatibility with the Williamson Act.  In light of the State’s policy objectives to promote renewable energy development with the Renewable Portfolio Standard Program and the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, there is a need for some consistency with regard to the application of the Williamson Act to solar development on agricultural land.

While the Opinion discusses nonrenewal and cancelling Williamson Act contracts as options to permit solar development, the critical part of the Opinion deals with how to determine if solar development is a compatible use with agricultural development, and provides guidelines and suggestions on the criteria that counties should follow in making that determination. Most important, the Opinion suggests that solar development should be approved even if inconsistent with principles of compatibility, so long as certain criteria are met.  The Opinion is clear that while counties ultimately will determine if solar development is compatible with agricultural development, it is the Department’s contention that the Williamson Act should not be an impediment to solar development.

Go here to read the white paper by the Department Of Conservation, Division of Land Resource Protection titled “Solar Power and the Williamson Act.”