The County of San Diego violated the Subdivision Map Act by approving residential development of land restricted to agricultural use under the Williamson Act when the development was neither closely related to nor necessary for agricultural use. Cleveland Nat. Forest Foundation v. County of San Diego, 37 Cal. App. 5th 1021 (2019).

Genesee Properties,

The Sixth District Court of Appeal has given a boost to utility-scale solar projects by rejecting the types of Williamson Act and CEQA challenges that are often brought against those projects.  Save Panoche Valley v. San Benito County, No. HO37599 (6th Dist. June 25, 2013).

The case concerns the Panoche Valley Solar Farm, a solar photovoltaic facility in San Benito County.  The project site has been used primarily for cattle grazing, and most of it was under Williamson Act contracts.  The county approved a reduced-scale 399-MW alternative designed to mitigate the environmental impacts of the project as proposed.  Not satisfied, three local groups — Save Panoche Valley, the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club — sued to challenge the approvals.  The court of appeal rejected each of their claims.

Need For Renewable Energy Supported Cancellation Of Williamson Act Contract In The Public Interest. 

The Williamson Act was designed to protect farmers from the economic pressures of encroaching development.  In exchange for entering into a contract with the city or county restricting the property to agricultural uses, the landowner is taxed on the agricultural value of the land, rather than the fair market value (which often accounts for development potential).  A contract must have an initial term of ten years, and an additional year is automatically added every year unless one of the parties gives notice the contract will not be renewed.

Contracts may also be cancelled at any time, provided either the cancellation is consistent with the purposes of the Williamson Act or the cancellation is in the public interest.  The county cancelled the Panoche Valley contracts on public interest grounds.  A public interest cancellation requires two separate findings: (1) other public concerns substantially outweigh the objectives of the Williamson Act and (2) there is no proximate noncontracted land that is available and suitable for the proposed use, or development of the contracted land would provide more contiguous patters of urban development.

Citing the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and the Renewables Portfolio Standard requirements enacted by the State Legislature, the court had little trouble concluding the county’s finding that the public interest in renewable energy outweighed the purpose of the Williamson Act was supported by substantial evidence.  “Though completion of the solar project by itself will not fulfill the state’s renewable energy goals, each additional renewable energy project helps the state advance toward meeting the requirements of the RPS.”

The court then addressed the county’s finding there was no proximate noncontracted land suitable for the proposed use and again found substantial evidence supporting the county’s determination.  It noted that “proximate” land under the Williamson Act means “property close enough to the restricted parcel to serve as a practical alternative for the proposed use.”  The court rejected the opponents’ claim that another potential solar project site was a proximate alternative.  There was evidence before the county showing the alternative was located approximately 60 miles away, in two different counties, was itself encumbered by Williamson Act contracts, and did not appear to be available in any event

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