Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 24, 2008

Guidelines Adopted Subsequent to Williamson Act Contract are Enforceable

The Williamson Act  in California authorizes local governments to establish “agricultural preserves” and to adopt rules governing the preserves. In exchange for voluntarily placing land into an established preserve, a landowner receives preferential tax assessment of the land under a Williamson Act contract with the local government. These contracts are intended to be long term, but are renewed annually.

In 1977, the owner of approximately 12,580 acres in Humboldt County entered into a Williamson Act contract to place his land in the county’s agricultural preserve. At that time, the county’s guidelines restricted subsequent divisions in the preserve to 160 acres or larger. A year later, the county amended its guidelines to increase the minimum parcel size to 600 acres. In 2000, the land was sold and the new owner began to divide and sell parcels 160 acres and larger in size. Claiming the land was subject to the more restrictive 600 minimum acre size, the county sued the new owner.


The trial court ruled in favor of the landowner. Since the more restrictive guidelines were adopted a year after the original owner placed his land into the agricultural preserve, the court concluded they could not be applied retroactively. The California Court of Appeals reversed. The court noted that approximately 16.6 million acres of agricultural land in California, or roughly half of all agricultural land in the state, is under Williamson Act contracts. Many of these contracts date back from the 1960s and early 1970s. “Such long-term contracts present serious problems,” the court observed, “if they do not incorporate later-adopted regulations when they are renewed. . . . Land under contract could effectively be shielded from all subsequent efforts to regulate its use.”





County of Humboldt v. McKee, 2008 WL 3582739 (Ca. App. 1st Div. 8/15/2008) 

 The opinion can be accessed at:


Check the Abbott & Kindermann Land Use Law Blog for more details at: 



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