Farm Bureau Challenge Fails: Trial Court Upholds County’s Cancellation of Williamson Act Contract to Accommodate Solar Project

 On December 13, 2012, a Fresno County superior court judge in California Farm Bureau Federation v. County of Fresno upheld the county’s partial cancellation of a Williamson Act contract, which will allow a solar generation project to be built on “Prime Farmland” as classified by the Department of Conservation.

 Under the Williamson Act (Gov. Code,  §§ 51200-51297.4), landowners can voluntarily enter into contracts with local governments to limit use of their land to agricultural and “compatible” uses in exchange for a reduction in property valuations for property tax purposes. Williamson Act contracts typically have a ten year initial term that is automatically extended year by year if the landowner and government agency fail to file a notice of nonrenewal. Landowners who wish to release their lands from use restrictions before a contract expires must petition the government agency to cancel the contract.

In October 2011, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted to partially cancel a Williamson Act contract for 90 acres of a 156-acre parcel of farmland in order to allow the development of a solar generation project. In its application for cancellation, the landowner Boyce Land Company stated the 66 acres remaining under contract would be used to cultivate citrus, while the 90 acres released from use restrictions would be permitted to become the site of a low-profile photovoltaic facility operated by Westlands Solar Farms LLC . The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) challenged the Board of Supervisor’s decision to cancel the contract, alleging violations of the Williamson Act .

The court disagreed with CFBF and ruled in favor of Fresno County. The county had based its decision to cancel the contract upon a finding that the cancellation is “in thepublic interest” per Government Code section 51282, subdivision (c). It highlighted “the need for renewable energy, lack of adequate and sustainable water supply, proximity to an existing electrical substation, and that the request is only for partial cancellation.”