Officials Mull Eminent Domain

SB 1099 would limit use of practice by agencies

By Dania Akkad

Two members of the state Senate agriculture committee held a listening session on Tuesday in Salinas focused on the potential impacts of government use of eminent domain on California agricultural land.

The meeting, attended by several growers, cattle ranchers and representatives of the state and county Farm Bureau, follows a decision in the spring by the Supreme Court that gave local governments broad eminent domain power to take private property for private development.

Committee member Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, who was at the meeting with chairman Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, has proposed legislation, SB 1099, that would limit the use of the practice by government agencies to acquire agricultural land.

"The U.S. Supreme Court suddenly convinced every homeowner that their property is at risk," said Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, who testified Tuesday. "It's raised new questions about eminent domain... and that's why we are here today."

Farmland, said Perkins and a representative from the California Farm Bureau, is vulnerable to eminent domain transactions because it is relatively inexpensive compared to other land.

Between 1991 and 2003, according to Dennis O'Bryant, division chief of the division of land resources protection with the Department of Conservation, more than 25,000 acres of agricultural land protected under the Williamson Act was acquired by public agencies.

The Williamson Act, administered by the state's Department of Conservation, provides agricultural landowners with tax breaks in exchange for their promise not to develop the land. More than 16 million acres are now enrolled in Williamson Act contracts.

"It is extremely disturbing," said John Gamper, director of land use and taxation for the California Farm Bureau, of the increase in agricultural lands being acquired by public agencies.

After the meeting, Perkins said he couldn't cite any example of an agency taking Williamson Act land with eminent domain and giving the land to a private property owner.

But he said that though he hadn't seen it happen in Monterey County, he was concerned that there isn't a mechanism between local and state agencies ensuring that agricultural land under Williamson Act isn't scooped up by local entities.

"These are all little pieces of the picture. It's not that one is exactly related to the other," he said referring to the Williamson Act and the use of eminent domain. "But the issue is there is a pattern that we believe could lead to that."

Also testifying at the meeting was Tim Hearne, a South County ranch owner who lives near Long Valley, where the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority is considering building a landfill. Eighty percent of the valley, he estimated, is preserved under the Williamson Act.

"Eminent domain law does not have enough precautions to prevent public agencies from taking over ag land," Hearne said. "It doesn't seem that the Williamson Act carries any substance at all with these agencies."

Monterey County Herald: www.montereyherald.com
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