A proposal to build a high school on farmland under Williamson Act protection has set off fireworks between local farmers and the school district in San Luis Obispo County. "This is the first time that we have seen such a controversy" over a public benefit acquisition of Williamson Act land, said Will Dale, staff attorney for the state Department of Conservation. Notwithstanding, the furor may presage similar conflicts as the agendas of farmland preservation and school construction crash head on in the rapidly developing Central Coastal area, according to Robert Corley, a Ventura-based school facilities consultant. The 1965 Williamson Act allows public agencies to acquire protected farmland to build public-benefit projects. (The act allows cancellations for three reasons: non-renewal of the contract, public acquisition and cancellation.) Parties that acquire land for public acquisition must demonstrate that no other land was suitable for the intended purpose, whether that land would be used as a nature preserve or as a recycling center, to cite two recent examples of public acquisition in San Luis Obispo County. Driving the controversy is the need for a new high school in the Nipomo area. Currently, the area is served by the 20-year-old Arroyo Grande High School in the neighboring City of Arroyo Grande; current enrollment at the high school is nearly double the building's capacity of 1,500 students. In March 1997, district voters approved a $24 million school bond, most of which was earmarked for a new high school. Shortly after, a public committee spent eight months evaluating sites in the Nipomo area for a new high school. In October of the same year, the committee chose 77 acres amid farmland owned by the Dana family, which has owned the land since the 19th century. Non-farmland sites were also considered by the committee, but were rejected because they were located in a flood plain or lacked infrastructure, or were habitat for oak trees and native plants, according to Sandy Davis, assistant superintendent of Lucia Mar Unified. In contrast, the proposed school site was flat and easily built upon, above the flood plain, and served by water and sewage lines. Early on, the site seemed uncontested. "We were so excited because the community had really been in support of the site," Davis said. In November, county planners told the school district that state officials would approve the public-benefit acquisition because the land was not prime farmland, the most zealously protected classification. County planners determined the land was not prime, because the Williamson Act follows federal guidelines for classifying farmland, and one guideline is irrigation. The Dana site is not irrigated. Despite that inconsistency, the site has been classified as prime farmland since 1972, and has been receiving subventions of $5 per acre annually from the state. (Non-prime land receives only $1 per acre.) The determination of prime vs. non-prime might be a purely bureaucratic one, except for the strong emotions that the proposed school has provoked among neighboring farmers and agri-businesses, including the C&M Nursery, which leases land from the Danas. That owners of that nursery, Mark Moore and Michael Cavaletto, have drawn a line in the loam by hiring the director of a private engineering and planning firm, John L. Wallace & Associates, to argue their case. On May 11, the nursery owners appeared to win an important policy battle, when the county's Agricultural Preserve Review Committee, which voted unanimously to oppose the site. County officials then concluded that the deciding factor in school construction is whether or not the land is truly prime farmland, and asked the state Department of Conservation for an opinion. In a July letter, staff attorney Dale Will surprised some observers by saying that the land was indeed prime, despite the lack of irrigation, because the soil quality suggested that the land could potentially be high-yielding farmland. In the same letter, Will also said the final decision lay with the county. "For years, the county has been taking the position that the soil qualifies as prime," said Dale in a July interview. "Then comes in the school district to build a high school on the same land, and now it's not prime after all. Our perspective is that we rely on the county to be the lead agency on their subventions." Would that mean that the county is not enforcing the Williamson Act? Non necessarily, said Dale. The state act, he argued, "is not intended to protect existing operations so much as to protect the land source from conversion to other (non-agricultural) uses." Another possible argument, then, is that "whether the land is irrigated or not irrigated is not dispositive, if the land itself qualifies for this Class 1 or 2 rating, assuming irrigation." In other words, there seems to be a gray area between land that is prime, because it is being irrigated, or potentially prime but requiring irrigation. Lucia Mar Unified's Davis said she is surprised and disappointed by the controversy, and noted that Arroyo Grande high school was built in a similar way, and remains surrounded amicably by farming on three sides. "We had hoped we could have that same relationship with Nipomo. We were sorry about that," she said. Dale said he had received a letter from the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors saying that the board does not view the site as a good one for the high school, but requested further information on the issue of prime vs. non-prime land. "I guess we will be responding to that letter," Dale said. Davis acknowledged that the school district knows it does not have the support of the county supervisors, but continues to complete the draft EIR. If built, the new school would open in 2003 with 800 students. Contacts: Robert Corley, school-facilities consultant, (805) 658-2995. Sandy Davis, business administrator, Lucia Mar United School District, (805) xxx-xxxx. Will Dale, staff attorney, Department of Conservation,