July 21, 2005
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On the cover: Rancher Joe
Russ at his Bunker Hill Ranch in Southern Humboldt County
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,
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 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?
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
"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
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.
"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
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
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"?
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
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
"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
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
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
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.'"
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
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
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.
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