The planning commission on Thursday voted to recommend granting a tax break for an agricultural preserve on a property near Mountain Ranch that was burned by the Butte Fire in the middle of its application process.

The commissioners unanimously recommended the board of supervisors establish a Williamson Act contract with property owners Paul Beatty, Debra Lawlor and Bruce Parker based on the state of their agricultural operation before the fire and the fact that the owners have plans to re-establish that operation this year. Commissioner Fawn McLaughlin was absent.

A Williamson Act contract, the common name for contracts established through the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, grants private landowners lower property taxes in exchange for restricting development on parcels of land that meet certain criteria, such as exceeding a minimum annual income of $2,000 from agricultural production.

The law is intended to keep agricultural land in production.

Contracts are evaluated yearly for re-establishment. Owners who disestablished contracts have their property taxes gradually raised to full-market value over the course of nine years, during which development is still restricted.

At the time of the owners’ application, the 251-acre property had an annual income of $6,560 from 12 sheep, 12 egg-laying hens, three beehives, a quarter-acre vegetable garden and a quarter-acre mixed fruit orchard.

By the time the application reached the planning commission for approval, the farming operations and home on the property were burned by the Butte Fire. Planner Gina Kathan said that the owners said they will spend the next year both rebuilding lost structures and reestablishing their agriculture operations, according to the county staff’s report on the application.

A deputy county counsel initially recommended postponing the request to the following year to give the owners time to reestablish their operation.

New contracts are sent to the board of supervisors to be approved for establishment on a yearly basis, so postponing the application for a year would mean the earliest the contract and the resulting tax break would go into effect is Jan. 1, 2017.

“You’re going to be putting their lives off for an entire year until 2017 before they can ever establish this contract again,” said Commissioner Lisa Muetterties.

Julie Moss-Lewis, deputy county counsel, told the commissioners that because the agricultural operation does not currently exist, it is not possible to establish an agricultural preserve and grant the resulting tax break.

“Why does current have to be construed to mean the minute the contract is approved if they already made the $2,000?” asked Commissioner Kelly Wooster.

Commissioner David Tunno said he believed current to mean that there was $2,000 of productive value currently on the property, but Agricultural Commissioner Kevin Wright said that amount is determined using the past year’s income.

Muetterties said she believes the past year’s income is an appropriate measure.

“They have the financials to back it up. I mean someone just can’t walk in and say, ‘Oh I’m going to do an ag preserve,’ and they don’t have the production that was ongoing to support it,” Muetterties said. “These people do.”

Moss-Lewis said there was no problem with the commissioners using a different definition of current to approve the recommendation. The commission decided to use the previous fiscal year, which ended June 30, as its definition of “current.”

The board of supervisors will vote Tuesday on the contract’s establishment today.


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