A recent California appellate decision broke new ground for solar energy developers by upholding a County’s decision to cancel numerous Williamson Act contracts and approve a large solar project despite potentially significant impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In Save Panoche Valley v. County of San Benito, the Sixth District Court of Appeal found that the County’s decision to approve a 399 MW photovoltaic solar project was supported by substantial evidence under both the Williamson Act and CEQA. The first-of-its kind published decision may have important implications for similar projects by affirming that California’s interest in promoting renewable energy may outweigh interests in protecting other resources…
The Williamson Act Challenge
The state’s Williamson Act (Government Code section 51200 et seq.) allows agricultural landowners to enter into contracts with local government agencies that require the land to be used for agricultural or related purposes for at least ten years, in exchange for reduced property tax assessments. Once entered, a contract can only be terminated in specific circumstances. One option is to seek cancellation by the local agency, which may only occur if the cancellation is found to be consistent with the Williamson Act, or in the public interest, on the basis of specific findings.
As renewable energy developers are increasingly aware, the Williamson Act often acts as a high hurdle to utilize agricultural lands for energy projects, even where the land currently has limited agricultural value. Save Panoche Valley represents just the latest effort for the courts and public agencies to balance protection of agricultural resources against the state’s demand for aggressive development of renewable energy sources. For example, in 2011, the Legislature enacted SB 618 (Wolk) in an attempt to expand the potential for siting solar facilities on unproductive land subject to Williamson Act contracts. The legislation allows a contract to be rescinded in favor of a “solar-use easement,” subject to certain conditions. However, the requirement that eligible lands must have “significantly reduced agricultural productivity” and other criteria mean that the “solar-use easement” option is available only on a narrow set of contracted lands… (more)