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Public Acquisitions

When there is a need for a public agency or other eligible entitiy to acquire land enrolled in a Williamson Act contract, or located in an agricultural preserve, the Department of Conservation must be notified.  Specific information must accompany the notification in order to ensure the requirements of Government Code §§51290 - 51295 and 51296.6 are met. 

While agencies are not required to follow a specific template to submit Williamson Act Public Acquisitions notices, these example documents may be useful if you are compiling a notice.  Following this outline may streamline your work process, by ensuring that all required material is contained in your initial notice.  The items are in PDF format.

Notification Form Template - describes each item that is required in the notification.

Example Notification Letter - an example of what the notification form would contain for a theoretical project.

Examples of Supporting Documentation (5.9 MB) - the attachments a notification requires, including a Williamson Act contract, agricultural preserve resolution, pertinent CEQA information, eminent domain documentation, and example maps.


Questions and Answers about Land Conservation (Williamson) Act Public Acquisition Notification

What is Public Acquisition of Williamson Act Land?

Public acquisition of Williamson Act land is acquisition, by provision in the Act (Government Code §§51290 - 51295, 51296.6), of land located within an agricultural preserve or enforceably restricted by a Williamson Act or Farmland Security Zone contract by a public agency or person for a public improvement.

Who can Acquire Williamson Act Land by Public Acquisition?

A public agency or person may acquire Williamson Act land by public acquisition. As defined by the Williamson Act,

"(1) 'public agency' means any department or agency of the United States or the state, and any county, city, school district, or other local public district, agency, or entity, and (2) 'person' means any person authorized to acquire property by eminent domain (Government Code §51291(a)."

A school district cannot acquire land that is under a Farmland Security Zone contract (§51296.6).

What Happens to the Contract?

If requirements for public acquisition of Williamson Act land are met, the land may be acquired and the contract may be terminated. If requirements are not met, the acquisition may not be valid, and the contract may remain in force and continue to restrict use of the land. If the acquired property remains within an agricultural preserve, land use remains subject to the rules of the preserve.

What is a Public Improvement?

As defined,

"'public improvement' means facilities or interests in real property, including easements, rights-of-way, and interests in fee title, owned by a public agency or person, as defined in subdivision (a) of Section 51291 (Government Code §51290.5)."

What are the Requirements for Public Acquisition of Williamson Act Contracted Land?

The policy of the state, consistent with the purpose of the Williamson Act to preserve and protect agricultural land, is to avoid, whenever practicable, locating public improvements and any public utilities improvements in agricultural preserves. If it is necessary to locate within a preserve, it shall be on land that is not under contract (Government Code §51290(a)(b)). More specifically, the basic requirements are:

  • Whenever it appears that land within a preserve or under contract may be required for a public improvement, the public agency or person shall notify the Department of Conservation (Department) and the city or county responsible for administering the preserve (§51291(b)).

  • Within 30 days of being notified, the Department and city or county shall forward comments, which shall be considered by the public agency or person (§51291(b)).

  • "No public agency or person shall locate a public improvement within an agricultural preserve unless the following findings [emphasis added] are made (§51292):"

    "(a) The location is not based primarily on a consideration of the lower cost of acquiring land in an agricultural preserve (§51292(a)).
    b) If the land is agricultural land covered under a contract pursuant to this chapter for any public improvement, that there is no other land within or outside the preserve on which it is reasonably feasible to locate the public improvement (§51292(a)(b))."

  • The contract shall be terminated when land is acquired by eminent domain or in lieu of eminent domain (§51295).

  • The Department and city or county shall be notified before project completion of any proposed, significant changes to the public improvement (§51291(d)).

  • The Department shall be notified within 10 working days upon completion of the acquisition (§51291(c)).

  • If, after acquisition, the acquiring public agency determines that the property will not be used for the proposed public improvement, before returning the land to private ownership, the Department and city or county administering the involved preserve shall be notified. The land shall be reenrolled in a new contract or encumbered by an enforceable restriction at least as restrictive as that provided by the Williamson Act (§51295).

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What Kinds of Information Must be Included with Notification?

Pursuant to Government Code §51291(b), the notice shall include:

  • The total number of acres of Williamson Act land to be acquired and whether the land is considered prime agricultural land according to §51201.

  • The purpose of the acquisition and why the land was identified for acquisition.

  • A description of where the parcel(s) is located.

  • Characteristics of adjacent land (urban development, Williamson Act, noncontract agricultural, etc.).

  • A vicinity map and a location map (see below also).

  • A copy of the contract(s) covering the land.

  • CEQA documents for the project.

  • The findings required under Government Code §51292, an explanation of the preliminary consideration of §51292 and documentation to support the findings. (Include a map of the proposed site showing an area of surrounding land identified by characteristics and large enough to demonstrate, along with the explanation, that no other, noncontracted land is reasonably feasible for the public improvement.)

  • Documentation to support acquisition by eminent domain or in lieu of eminent domain to void the contract pursuant to §51295. (Include copies of eminent domain proceedings, if applicable, a property appraisal and written offer pursuant to Government Code §§7267.1 and 7267.2, a chronology of steps taken or planned to effect acquisition by eminent domain or in lieu of eminent domain and copies of any other pertinent documents, such as a Resolution of Necessity.)

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Can we Notify the Department Through the CEQA Process?

No, it is not permissible to provide notice through CEQA. Notification must be made separately to the Department (Government Code §51291(b)).

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Will Selecting the "Best" Location for the Public Improvement Satisfy the Finding Required?

No, selecting the "best" or "preferred" location will not satisfy the finding. The criterion to locate on contract land is that there is no other location that is not under contract and reasonably feasible for the public improvement (Government Code §51292(b)).

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Will the Contract Terminate When we Acquire the Property?

Not necessarily. The contract will be terminated or voided when the property is acquired by eminent domain or in lieu of eminent domain (Government Code §51295). If these requirements are not met, the contract will remain in force and continue to restrict use of the land.

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Isn't an Acquisition "in Lieu" of Eminent Domain Simply a Purchase From a Willing Seller?

No, an acquisition "in lieu" of eminent domain must follow eminent domain law. The Department does not provide counsel as to the requirements of eminent domain law. We recommend that the public agency or person obtain legal counsel for this purpose.

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What if we Provide Notice and Then Decide to Modify the Project?

The Department and city or county responsible for administering the involved agricultural preserve shall be notified before project completion of any proposed significant changes to the public improvement (Government Code §51291(d)).

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What if we Acquire the Property and Then Decide Not to Use it for the Public Improvement?

If, after acquisition, the acquiring public agency determines that the property will not be used for the proposed public improvement, before returning the land to private ownership, the Department and city or county administering the involved agricultural preserve shall be notified. The land shall be reenrolled in a new contract or encumbered by an enforceable restriction at least as restrictive as that provided by the Williamson Act (Government Code §51295).

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Once we Provide Notice, Does our Responsibility End?

No. The notice may be incomplete, in which case the Department will request additional information to complete proper notice. The public agency or person is required to consider the Department's comments (Government Code §51291(b)) and to adhere to the Williamson Act statute in determining whether to complete the acquisition. As noted above, additional notice is required if significant changes are proposed and if the property will not be used for the proposed public improvement. In addition, when the land is acquired, the Department shall be notified within 10 working days, and the notice shall include a general explanation of the decision and findings made (§51291(c)).

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