On the cover North Coast Journal

July 21, 2005


Divided land: As the Williamson Act turns 40, ranchers say the county       has wandered off the track {photo of man in cowboy hat, ranchland in background]

On the cover: Rancher Joe Russ at his Bunker Hill Ranch in Southern Humboldt County
Divided land: As the Williamson Act turns 40, ranchers say the county has wandered off the track

story & photos by HEIDI WALTERS

"Say, for instance, I want to stay in the Williamson Act, but I don't want to sign your new contract. What prison do I go to?"

-- a rancher at the Jan. 19, 2005,
Humboldt County workshop on
new Williamson Act guidelines.


Late afternoon fog rapidly swallows the sunshine in the higher elevations of the Bunker Hill Ranch, along the Bear River Ridge Road near Ferndale, as Joe Russ [photo below left] parks his white Cadillac Escalade on a gravel road that traverses the ranch and gets out. It's early July: The grass is long and lush, in one place towering over two does and a fawn alongside the road. The road continues over the top of the grassy knoll, past some grazing cows, and disappears west. If you kept on it, you'd eventually end up just north of where Russ was born, at the Ocean House on what's now [Joe Russ in cowboy hat, with cigarette]called the Lost Coast. "This was the old wagon trail where they drove the cattle from Bear River country to the ocean," Russ says. "Then they drove the cattle up the beach to Ferndale."

"They" were members of Russ' family. Since 1852, the Russ family has run livestock on this hilly 3,000-acre ranch, and made out pretty well with the timber (the Russ family owns other lands in Humboldt and other counties, as well). Here at Bunker Hill, they first ran sheep and cattle, and then just cattle -- about 250 head, today. Russ' great-grandfather, Joseph Russ, left the ranch to Joe's aunt Bertha Russ Lytle, and she left it to Joe. Joe runs two other ranches in the Bear River region, and the three amount to 20,000 acres, all under Williamson Act contracts. So, naturally, Russ was at that contentious Jan. 19 workshop the county held to announce some changes in the way it manages the Williamson Act program, and he's been to every meeting since. And as a former Humboldt County Planning Commissioner (1965 to 1985), the longest-serving member of the California Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors (since 1968), the former state director of the Cattlemen's Association and a member of the California Farm Bureau Federation, he's got a bone to pick with the current county planners.

"They didn't go to each property owner and say, `Here are our new guidelines, how do you feel about it?'" he says. "It was just kind of run over the top of everybody."

Ironically, the rest of the state is celebrating the Williamson Act's 40th anniversary this month. But up here in Humboldt County, the act looks like it's about to implode.

So maybe we'd better back down the road a bit for a primer.


July 15, 1965: The California Legislature enacts the California Land Conservation Act, called the Williamson Act after author John Williamson, a state assemblyman from Kern County and chair of the Food and Agriculture Committee. The act is passed to save family farms and ranches during a time when urban development is rapidly devouring the state's rural lands, causing everybody's property values -- and taxes -- to soar. It allows 20 to 75 percent tax reductions for landowners who agree to keep their lands in at least 50 percent commercial agricultural production. Landowners can sign a 10-year contract, which stays with the land -- and is renewed each year for another 10 years, unless either party files for non-renewal, at which point the contract runs out over the next nine years as the taxes gradually increase. The state later allows for counties to receive "subvention funds" to make up for lost tax revenues: $1 an acre for prime land, $5 an acre for non-prime (grazing).

June 24, 1969: Humboldt County enters the Williamson Act program, and by 1981, 243,000 acres go under contract. The county creates guidelines for three kinds of preserves: Class A prime land, Class B non-prime (grazing) lands, and Class C cropland. (By 2005, there are more than 273,000 acres in the program, in 145 preserves -- made up of 1,400 parcels -- in Humboldt County. About 190,000 acres are non-prime, or grazing, lands, of which 81,000 acres are also protected under the county's Timber Production Zone program.) For Class B preserves, the county establishes a 160-acre parcel minimum within a 600-acre preserve.

February 1978: Humboldt County updates its guidelines. After 1979, not only must a Class B preserve be at least 600 acres, but it can't be divided into parcels smaller than 600 acres. The only exception is if four separate owners of 160-acre parcels combine them to make a preserve, they can later sell their 160s separately within the preserve. Nobody seems to kick up a fuss.

June 11, 2002: The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors adopts sweeping updates to its guidelines. They clarify the 600-acre preserve size minimum and specify that while one can get into a preserve by combining a 160-acre parcel with three others, one cannot divide that 160-acre parcel out later; incorporate changes in state law including stiffer fines for material breach of the contract (new buildings, for instance, that have nothing to do with agriculture); expand the compatible uses category; and add a fourth preserve category, Class D, for "unique farmland." Few people attend the hearing.

May 20, 2003: The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors establishes the Williamson Act Agricultural Advisory Committee.

Jan. 19, 2005: The county holds a Williamson Act workshop to explain new state laws that precipitated the 2002 guideline updates, and to tell everyone they have to sign new "standardized" contracts to "acknowledge their obligations under the program" -- and the cowpie hits the fan. "Breach of contract!" cry some of the old-timers in the program, miffed by the county's unilateral changes. "Unfair!" cry others, who say the 600-acre parcel minimum will cut their property values in half. They're also annoyed that now, whenever a contracted land passes to a new owner, that new owner has to come in and sign a new contract. Some of the landowners wonder why they hadn't been notified of these changes back in 2002, and one woman suggests the county "update its mailing list."

Six months later: The shit's still flyin'. The Williamson Act advisory committee has met once a month since January to hash out the issues. On June 23 the committee voted to send revised guidelines to the Board of Supervisors. The board was scheduled this week to set an August hearing date. Although the committee revised the guidelines to answer certain concerns, some people still say they won't sign a new contract. The county says it'll non-renew those people. Both sides predict the demise of the agricultural lands preservation program if they don't get their way.

Will the local Williamson Act program collapse in a tangle of ire? Will the ranchers and county ever walk private hand-in-public hand again down that once harmonious country track? What will become of those vast, rolling grasslands flanked by timber and dotted with contented cattle?

[view of ranch]


Joe Russ' Bunker Hill Ranch has been under contract since the early 1970s -- so long, he says, he can't even find his contract. And, as an original signatory to the Bunker Hill Williamson Act contract, Russ doesn't even have to sign a new contract -- that's one concession the committee made after hearing complaints earlier this year. Nor are new contracts required in family-to-family transfers. Still, Russ doesn't want the county telling him, or anyone else, he can't sell parcels under 600 acres. Not that he's planning to sell anything.

"Our family's been in the ranching business for five generations, and it's the only lifestyle we know," he says. "Basically, our ranches are not for sale."

But it's a private property issue, he says, and Humboldt County is violating the spirit of the Williamson Act -- an act he helped craft back in the 1960s.

"I looked at it then as a step in the right direction to keep our rangelands in production," Russ recalls. "And, to the extent that the public is interested and wants to be involved in it, why, I look at that as a plus."

What's funny is, Russ claims credit for coming up with the county's 600-acre figure that everyone's so hung up on now. The state has set a minimum of 100 acres for a grazing preserve, and only says that smaller parcels may be combined to reach that minimum. It lets counties set stricter minimums if needed. Back in 1969, Russ and his colleagues decided that 600 acres for a preserve, which could be divided into 160-acre parcels, "really identified you as a property owner with a real interest in running livestock." The number is close to a square mile -- 640 acres, which equals a section of land. Six hundred acres "was a compromise," he says.


"The real question is whether we're going to have ranching in Humboldt County in the future," says Steve Werner, county supervising planner. "Years ago, 160 acres probably was sufficiently large that you wouldn't get speculation of lands. Now, 160 acres is easily sold."

Kirk Girard [photo below left], county community development director, says that's why the minimum parcel size has to be higher, and why new owners of contracted lands should sign new contracts. Most problems occur after such transactions, he says.

[Kirk Girard]"There's a rural land bonanza going on in Humboldt County, and it's not being driven by agriculturalists but by people who want to use the resource lands for residential purposes," says Girard. "And the Williamson Act represents a threat to that interest."

The county says "rural sprawl" can place a drain on county services, such as water and sewer. Girard says a 600-acre parcel minimum should help deter the sort of leapfrog development that smaller parcel divisions might encourage. He points specifically to what happened on the Tooby Ranch.

The 13,000-acre Tooby Ranch has been under a Williamson Act contract since 1977. In 2000, Bob McKee, of Buck Mountain Ranch, bought the ranch. McKee sold 49 parcels, averaging 300 acres, using patent parcel lines. His attorneys, including Eureka-based attorney Bill Bertain, say he could do that under the land's 1977 contract. The county says otherwise, and sued McKee and the parcel buyers. (A scheduling hearing was held this Monday on the case, and the trial is set for Oct. 11.)

The Tooby Ranch case is the biggest (alleged) non-compliance case in the county so far, says county assessor Linda Hill. But there have been others. The state just finished auditing the county's program. In a letter to the county dated July 1, the state Department of Conservation's Dennis O'Bryant wrote: "In general, we found that the County's Agricultural Preserve Program and Subvention applications were in compliance with the Williamson Act and the Open Space Subvention Act." O'Bryant presented six findings, including one on the county's own notification that it had 28 contracted properties in non-compliance and scheduled for possible non-renewal. (The state, on request, faxed the letter to the Journal last week. The same day, county planner Werner said he hadn't seen any letter from the state on the audit, and that the audit was still in progress. And, Assessor Hill said the information on the properties in non-compliance was "confidential" until they had been brought before the Williamson Act committee.) The state's letter also suggested that the county look at lands that have been overtaken by timber and consider removing them from the Williamson Act if they no longer provide enough grazing production. And, the state said it might withhold about $20,000 in subvention funds to the county for lands that fell out of compliance. (The county receives around $211,000 a year in state subvention funds.) Nevertheless, the state said the county had been "proactive in identifying infractions and trying to develop viable solutions" and basically said to carry on with the good work and let the department know when the issues were resolved.

So, there appear to be some problems. But that doesn't keep some ranchers from saying the county's fix goes too far. Are those ranchers just being greedy, maybe just trying to protect their "exit strategy"?


[Alex Moore standing in field, cows in background]The question offends 33-year-old Alex Moore [photo at right], who bought the roughly 800-acre Branstetter Ranch, under Williamson Act contract since 1977, in the Mattole Valley in 1996. Why, he asks, shouldn't he be able to sell a 160-acre parcel if he needs to? What if he has major medical expenses? Or otherwise needs cash?

Moore's ranch is near tiny Honeydew -- reached by "The Wildcat," a long road that curls deep into the hilly forest. The ranch borders the 66,000-acre Kings Range National Conservation Area on one side. The Mattole River fronts two miles of the ranch, and Honeydew Creek runs through it. "Those big fir trees up on the ridge?" says Moore, standing in a field one afternoon, pointing over the heads of a dozen cows. "Our plans are to put a vineyard in there. It's all flat up there. Obviously, grapes are a profitable form of agriculture, but it's years before you see your profit."

To do that, he'd have to apply for an additional, different preserve category contract. And, the county's 600-acre parcel minimum binds Moore's hands if he wants to sell a smaller piece of land for financing -- he can't, because to meet the 600-acre minimum parcel requirement for division, he would have to have at least 1,200 acres. So, he'd have to sell the whole ranch if something came up.

The 600-acre parcel minimum will devalue his property "up to 70 percent," he adds, because larger parcels are worth less per acre than smaller ones.

Moore says he's ready to non-renew if the county insists he sign a new contract. He also says he might sue.

"The county, they've painted this picture for all of the public, this fear of conversion from agricultural preserve to residential," he says. "But it's not going to happen here in Humboldt County. Who the hell is going to move out here to the Mattole Valley and want to live in a `McKinleyville?' They move out here because they want open space. People move here because they like the way of life here in Humboldt County. I like the open space. I want to see it preserved. I totally agree with the county on that. But this is private property, and we have private property rights -- and they're getting trampled."


The real estate community also has been vocal in the debate. Normally, when you see real estate agents sniffing around zoning issues, you'd maybe guess they're looking for the most profitable action. But Jim Redd, chairperson of the Humboldt County Association of Realtors' Williamson Act subcommittee, says the new guidelines affect his business -- brokering large ranches, which he's done for 28 years.

"The Realtors Association is not self-serving," he says. "Most of our lobbying has to do not with making more money, but with preserving private property rights."

He says the Realtors Association likes the Williamson Act program. "But our concern is, the county's recent changes are going to make it not attractive to landowners because it becomes so restrictive. And, people will pull out of their Williamson Act contracts and the program will collapse."

But wouldn't that make the land more valuable, with so many restrictions removed?

"For me, personally, it'd be better if we chopped up Humboldt County into 40-acre parcels" and made more money off of them, he replies. "But that's not what I want. I've lived in Humboldt County for 35 years. We've got a great quality of life here, and I don't want to see it change. But development of 160-acre parcels is not `sprawl.'"

[Bill Bertain]Redd says Humboldt County "is becoming the most restrictive in the Williamson Act program. Modoc County has a minimum parcel size of 70 acres for non-prime agricultural land. I think maybe the county is trying to use this as an `open space' program instead of what it was intended as."

That's what attorney Bill Bertain [photo at left] thinks. He calls the county's new Williamson Act guidelines a "power grab."

"It would appear that [the county] wants to push people off the land and make them live in cities," says Bertain. "Open space is fine -- it can be done in harmony with a person living on 160 acres. Why make it impossible for Joe Six-pack to buy a 40-acre timber production zone, or a 160-acre parcel in a Williamson Act grazing preserve? What social or environmental goal is served by this?

"I think it's healthy emotionally, environmentally, politically, socially and spiritually for people to own rural land. I mean, as long as you're not draining county services or hurting the watershed, why can't we and the county as a whole benefit from people living in the rural part of the county? We're not going to pack `em in."

What the county is doing, says Bertain, pounding his fist on the desk in his Eureka office, is "trying to stifle freedom!"


Which sort of brings us back to that new contract the county wants most everyone to sign. Perhaps -- all the parcel minimums, hurt feelings and property values aside -- the whole mess boils down to one question: Has there been a breach of contract?

Girard says no, because the Williamson Act contract is "an expression of public policy."

"The Williamson Act is a contract between a state and a private landowner," he says. "The contract terms cannot bind the state police power authority. The state, in fact, can make laws and have it apply to individual contracts with the state. And not only does the state have that authority, but so does the county."

As deputy county counsel Richard Hendry, who is litigating the Tooby Ranch case, puts it: "A principle of contract law is, you cannot unilaterally change a contract. But this is a special contract. Most contracts aren't overlaid by government restrictions."

To that, one attorney on the other side of the fence proclaims: "Horseshit."

Or, as a rancher asked angrily at the Jan. 19 meeting: "Why would I want to be in this program [if] I don't know what my contract's going to be next year?"

But what about the founders of the Williamson Act, what would they say? The act's author, John Williamson, died in 1998. But the man who was a consultant to the state Committee on Agriculture back when it was crafting the land conservation act, Bill Geyer, has been following Humboldt County's agitations from Sacramento. Geyer now runs the Resource Landowners Coalition. "When we used the concept of a `contract,' we expected contracts to be contracts," Geyer says. "But I think there's a school of law at the state level, where they'd like to think a contract can be trumped by local guidelines. I don't believe that's correct. I think the purpose of [local] guidelines is to facilitate the contract. It looks to me like the people who entered into the program in the 1970s thought they had a deal where the minimum parcel size [that could be sold] was 160 acres. It looks to me like they have had a practical contract expectation."


Local turmoil aside, the 40-year-old Williamson Act seems to be holding up well, barring some troublesome enforcement issues that in 2004 led to stiffer state penalties for contract violations. Almost 17 million acres -- more than half of the farmland and almost a third of the private property in the state -- is under contract.

"I think it's amazing," Geyer says. "When we started out with this, and I went around the state talking with local groups, some of the farmers thought it was a communist plot! They thought they should just get the tax relief by right. So, bearing that in mind, it's amazing that more than a third of the landowners in California are willing to enter into a contract with their local government and allow it to limit what they can do with their land."

Well, except for some Humboldt County ranchers, who seem to be having second thoughts.

[view of ranch with cows and buildings]



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