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The state Senate voted 23-13 Thursday to approve legislation by state Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D–Santa Rosa, to help preserve working farmlands and open space.

Known as the California Farmland Conservancy Program Act, Senate Bill 1142 creates a relief stream of funds for critical farm and ranchland habitats, according to Wiggins’ spokesman David Miller. Already approved by members of the State Assembly, the Wiggins measure will soon be on its way to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his signature or veto.

Wiggins introduced SB 1142 in February in the midst of growing concern over the viability of the state’s Williamson Act program, which had for more than four decades served as a consistent source of a financial support for California farmers committed to maintaining their lands in agricultural production, Miller said.

Since 1965, the state’s general fund has paid counties and cities about $40 million a year to make up for the property tax revenues lost because of lowered assessments, he said. In addition, the general fund automatically backfills school districts for lost property taxes. However, in the revised budget proposal that  Schwarzenegger unveiled in May, Williamson Act funding would be reduced to $1,000 for the entire state.

“California’s farmers and ranchers are struggling to keep their lands in active agriculture production and face many challenges, including the possible loss of their Williamson Act contracts,” Wiggins said in a prepared statement. “Ensuring that these lands continue to produce food for Californians and the nation simultaneously provides many other public benefits, including support for rural economies, water supply and quality, flood control, wildlife, scenic vistas and our agricultural heritage.”

The California Department of Conservation’s Farmland Conservancy Program offers grants to buy conservation easements from willing landowners. This program keeps lands in private ownership while the owners voluntarily avoid development for anything but agricultural production.

However, state law prohibits the Conservation department from imposing  restrictions on any commercial agricultural activities, making it difficult for the state to help landowners with properties that could be used for multiple or seasonal purposes, such as flood corridors or wildlife habitat, Miller said.  

SB 1142 gives the conservation department flexibility to work with willing landowners by using other existing funding as grants to protect riparian zones, wildlife habitat or flood corridors while simultaneously keeping the farmed portions in agricultural use, he said. The Farm, Ranch and Watershed Fund established by the Wiggins bill would also be managed by the Department of Conservation, which would seek its own grants for the program. Money would come from existing bonds for soil, water and farmland conservation, but no new taxes would be required. Miller said nonprofits could also be involved, via cost-sharing, in the identification of critical habitats and other joint projects.

In Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties alone, almost 100,000 acres of farmland has been lost since 1984, according to Miller. The biggest loss was in grasslands, which are good for livestock, wildlife, and watershed protection, he said.

“SB 1142 is good government,” Wiggins said. “It gives farmers the ability to tap into an existing funding stream to protect the farms from which we all benefit. And it makes better use of tax dollars through carefully evaluated easements to protect critical habitats and watersheds.

“Better yet,” she added, “it gives the state the power to derive money from some non-tax sources for farm and ranch protection so that conservation is not annually subject to the state’s changing budget.”

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