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DLRP Helps California Balance
Growth with Agricultural Production

Maybe instead of calling the state California they should have named it Cornucopia. Settlers may have originally come for the gold, but many of them stayed because of the rich farmland and bountiful crops.

California's $31 billion agricultural business (in 2002) is easily the most productive in the nation. Nearly 27 million of the state's 100 million acres are in agricultural use.

Meanwhile, the population is growing like a weed. Experts think the current population of 35 million will be 50 million by 2025. Increased population means increased conversion of farmland and open space to urban use. According to one study, at present rates, more than a million acres of agricultural land will be converted to urban uses by 2040.

The Division of Land Resource Protection, with roots in national reform after the Dust Bowl and a variety of identities and functions over the years, is charged with tracking the state's vital farmland and helping to keep it in production. DLRP promotes planned growth to ensure there's enough land to grow food and that open space is preserved for its scenic, social and wildlife values.

In 1935, prompted by losses in soil productivity and erosion, Congress created the Soil Conservation Service. A year later, SCS began pressing states to adopt the Standard Soil Conservation Act, which organized farmers into soil conservation districts. California adopted a modified version of the act in 1938. California promptly created the Resource Conservation Commission and the Division of Resource Conservation

After World War II, California’s agricultural and open space lands began to face increasing conversion pressure. Farmland began disappearing at an alarming rate. One of two major vehicles for protecting California's agricultural and open-space land came into being in 1965, when an interim committee of the California Assembly generated Assembly Bill 2117.

Formally called the California Land Conservation Act, it became known as the Williamson Act after author John Williamson. For volunteering to keep their land in a 10-year Williamson Act contract, landowners can receive a tax break. Their assessments are based upon farming and open space uses rather than full market or development value during the 10-year contract period.

It wasn't exactly an instant success. In the two years following passage of the Williamson Act, only 200,000 acres were enrolled under contract in six counties. But the state constitutionally prioritized preserving open-space land and agricultural land, and in 1971 began partially replacing property tax revenues lost by counties on enrolled land under the Open Space Subvention Act. This encouraged greater participation in the program.

Meanwhile, the Division of Resource Conservation was enjoying its heyday in the late '60s, with a staff of 46 at one point. But it was decided the division duplicated work that could be done by either the federal Soil Conservation Service or by local programs. Thus, the division was eliminated in 1974 (although the Resource Conservation Commission met until 1978).

In the late '70s, the Department of Conservation created a unit, Special Services for Resource Protection, to staff the Williamson Act. In 1981, DOC established the Land Conservation Unit to carry on that work. A year later, the Legislature established the Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program after AB 986 passed. That program was combined with the Land Conservation Unit to form the Division of Land Resource Protection.

Which gets us to where we are today, right? Not quite. Just like its predecessor, the Division of Resource Conservation, DLRP would have to die and be reborn. Sandwiched between a couple of significant pieces of legislation -- the establishment in 1984 of a committee to develop a comprehensive soil conservation plan for the state and an '86 law providing for biennial reports on farmland conversions -- DLRP was administratively dismantled. The FMMP was transferred to the Division of Mines and Geology while the Land Conservation Unit continued to work on the state soil conservation plan.

DLRP was reincarnated as the Office of Land Conservation in 1987, as the FMMP and the Land Conservation Unit were reunited. The division wouldn't become known as DLRP again until 1998.

In 1995, the second major tool for protecting farmland came into being when SB 275 established the Agricultural Land Stewardship Program, now known as the California Farmland Conservancy Program. Under this grants program, landowners sell the development rights for their property in perpetuity to a land trust while retaining the right to use the land for agricultural purposes.

The CFCP enhances the Williamson Act by targeting the agricultural land facing the most development pressure.

A 1998 law, SB 1240, acts as a bridge between the Williamson Act and the CFCP. SB 1240 allows lands to be taken out of a Williamson Act contract under certain circumstances if the landowner places a permanent conservation easement on a separate but larger and more valuable parcel of land approved locally and by the state.

The Williamson Act is still the state's premier agricultural program. About 16 million acres have been enrolled since the early 1980s -- about one third of all privately held land in California, and about one half of all the state’s agricultural land. In 1998, the "Super Williamson Act" became law, providing additional tax incentives to landowners willing to enter into 20-year contracts.

FMMP continues to provide a consistent and impartial analysis of agricultural land use and land use changes. FMMP produces maps and statistical data that are provided to the private sector, local, state and federal agencies. Agricultural land is rated according to soil quality and irrigation status. Aerial photographs, a computer mapping system, public review, and field reconnaissance are used to map 48 counties covering 44.1 million acres every two years.

DLRP also administers grants and provides technical assistance to the state's 103 local Resource Conservation Districts. RCDs serve urban and rural populations, helping landowners conserve and preserve natural resources.

Go to the Division of Land Resource Protection