County's Cancellation of Contract for Housing Development Upheld
In canceling a Williamson Act contract, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors did not need to find that the cancellation was consistent with the county general plan or that an emergency situation existed, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled. The county only needed to find that "other public concerns" substantially outweighed the need to protect farmland, and that no other suitable land not subject to the Williamson Act was available for the proposed development.
The case stems from an American Indian tribe's proposed housing development in the rural Willits Valley of southern Mendocino County. In May 1997, the Sherwood Valley Rancheria acquired the 160-acre Bettansid Ranch and planned to construct 15 low-income homes on 3 1/2 acres.
The ranch, however, was subject to a Williamson Act contract, which provides tax breaks for property owners who maintain their land for agriculture or open space. In September 1997, Bettansid Ranch Inc. gave notice of nonrenewal, which starts a 10-year phase out of the Williamson Act restrictions. The Ranch and the tribe also jointly applied for immediate cancellation of the contract. Cancellation is allowed only if the property owner pays substantial penalties or under certain circumstances.
In early 1998, the Mendocino County Planning Commission voted to deny the cancellation petition, citing concerns about loss of agricultural land. Later that year, the Board of Supervisors overturned the decision, and approved the cancellation and the development. The tribe and the county also signed an agreement obligating the landowners to comply with Williamson Act restrictions on 53 acres of prime agricultural land. The tribe's development site was on the 107-acre portion of the ranch that was wooded hillside.
A group called Friends of East Willits Valley sued, challenging the Williamson Act cancellation and the county's environmental review. Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Vincent Lechowick ruled for the residents. He found that no substantial evidence existed to support the Williamson Act decision. He also concluded the county should have prepared an environmental impact report (EIR) rather than a negative declaration.
The tribe appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the First District, Division Five, overturned the lower court.
While the appeal was pending, the Bureau of Indian Affairs accepted the ranch into trust for the tribe, which is a standard action. The Tribe argued that the federal action voided the Williamson Act restriction, or, alternatively, that the action prevented the state court from deciding the issue. The court ruled that it had jurisdiction and that the Williamson Act still applied. It then considered the merits.
Under Government Code § 51282, a county may cancel a Williamson Act contract only if cancellation is consistent with the act, or if cancellation is "in the public interest." The county approved cancellation based on the public interest.
The residents argued that the county could approve cancellation only if the project were consistent with the county general plan, if an emergency situation existed, if the project were contiguous to existing development, and if the project would not result in loss of adjacent agricultural uses. The residents cited case law and sections of the Williamson Act.
But the appellate court held that none of these four findings were necessary. The county only needed to have substantial evidence that a public interest outweighed the goal of the Williamson Act, and that no other suitable land was available for the housing project outside of properties protected by the Williamson Act, the court ruled.
"Substantial evidence supports the County's finding that the project will promote low-income housing. The record establishes that more than 70% of Tribe member's households have incomes below 50% of the median in Mendocino County. More than 40 families are living in substandard or overcrowding or housing that consumes more than 30% of their income … . Seventeen families are living on the Tribe's existing lands without electricity and with inadequate water," Justice Linda Gemello wrote for the court.
"Furthermore, the county was entitled to decide that the impact on Williamson Act interests from cancellation would be negligible," Gemello continued. "Under the terms of the tribal/county agreement, the portion of the ranch that potentially constitutes prime agricultural land will remain subject to Williamson Act restrictions until September 30, 2007, essentially the same period for which such restrictions would have continued to apply in the absence of cancellation. The county therefore could conclude that cancellation would have little, if any, impact on the interests protected by the Williamson Act, and that those interests were substantially outweighed by the need for additional low-income housing."
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the appellate court upheld the county's negative declaration. The court said that the residents provided no evidence other than testimony of community members that the project would impact road conditions or water resources. And the court thought little of a letter from the California Department of Conservation saying the project could induce growth. The state agency based its conclusion on projects elsewhere that had golf courses — projects unlike the tribe's low-income housing development, the court ruled.
Sherwood Valley Rancheria v. Friends of East Willits Valley, No. A094872, 02 C.S.O.S. 7488, 2002 DJDAR 9380. Filed August 14, 2002.
For the Rancheria: David Rapport, Rapport & Marston, (707) 462-6846.
For Friends: Rose Zoia, (707) 526-5894.