The Fresno County Superior Court issued an order denying the California Farm Bureau Federation's challenge to Fresno County's cancellation of a Williamson Act contract, which the County cancelled to allow construction of a solar generation project. Finding that "extraordinary circumstances" are not required to support cancellation of a Williamson Act contract, the court concluded that the Fresno County Board of Supervisors had substantial evidence to support its conclusion that cancellation was in the public interest.
The decision is the first to take on the interplay between the Williamson Act's goals to protect agricultural land and the State's directive to increase reliance on renewable energy in California. The decision suggests that local agencies will be afforded substantial deference in determining whether the public interest in developing solar projects outweighs the public interest in protecting agriculture.
The Williamson Act is a California state law that allows landowners to enter contracts with local governments to restrict the use of their land for agricultural and compatible uses, in exchange for favorable property tax treatment. (Gov. Code, § 51200, et seq.) The Williamson Act provides specific circumstances under which a Williamson Act contract may be cancelled to allow for a different use of the property. At issue in this case was Government Code section 51282(a)(2), which provides that a Williamson Act contract may be cancelled if the local agency finds that cancellation is in the public interest. In order to determine that cancellation is in the public interest, the local agency must find "(1) that other public concerns substantially outweigh the objectives of [the Williamson Act]; and (2) that there is no proximate noncontracted land which is both available and suitable for the use to which it is proposed the contracted land be put, or that development of the contracted land would provide more contiguous patterns of urban development than development of proximate noncontracted land." (Gov. Code, § 51282(c).)
The court examined Fresno County's findings in support of cancellation and found that there was substantial evidence in the record to support the County's conclusion that the required findings are met. In particular, the court noted that all parties agree development of renewable energy is an important public interest in the County and the State. The court cited to the State mandate to increase reliance on renewable energy as evidence of the public interest in solar development. The court also noted important local public interests that support the County's cancellation, including the proximity of the solar project to the Gates substation, which will avoid discontiguous development of electrical infrastructure and reduce the cost of providing renewable energy, and the County's finding that the solar project would have a positive impact on the local economy.
In addition, the court noted that the evidence supports the County's conclusion that water delivery to the project site has been sporadic and declining, and eliminating the need to irrigate the project site would increase water allocation to other farmers, benefitting the agricultural economy and promoting the objectives of the Williamson Act.
While the decision comes from the trial court and, therefore, is not precedential, it presents a thoughtful analysis on how to reconcile the brewing conflict in California's Central Valley over the value of agriculture versus the value of renewable energy.