Williamson Act Contracts May be Cancelled to Allow Project Developments with a Significant Public Benefit

Save Panoche Valley, et al., v. San Benito County

(2013) ___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___

In a decision that is sure to be favored by solar developers, California’s Sixth District Court of Appeal recently upheld San Benito County’s decision to cancel certain Williamson Act contracts, and certify an environmental impact report, to make way for a solar plant development on agricultural lands.

The proposed project site was comprised of 4,885 acres of land which, for the past century, has been used for cattle grazing and was identified as a conservation area for sensitive plant and animal species. The project site included parcels subject to Williamson Act contracts, which cannot be cancelled unless, as relevant here, the public agency makes an express finding that public concerns substantially outweigh the Act’s objectives, and there is no proximate non-contracted land that is suitable and available.

Here, the County cancelled the contracts on the basis that the public’s interest in solar power substantially outweighed the Act’s objectives, and that no proximate alternative sites were available. The Sixth District agreed:

There is substantial evidence in the administrative record that the solar project proposed by Solargen would help further the state’s progress toward achieving its goal for increased renewable energy and reduced greenhouse emissions, as the proposed project would generate renewable energy for the state while providing jobs to local residents. The reason for the proposed project’s existence is to create a solar farm to generate renewable energy. Though completion of the solar project by itself will not fulfill the state’s renewable energy goals, each additional renewable energy project helps the state advance toward meeting the requirements of the RPS [Renewables Portfolio Standard].

The appellate court rejected the claim that the County had erroneously dismissed “proximate” alternative sites located in different counties 60 miles away; in the court’s view, the County was justified in finding that such alternatives were not “proximate” within the meaning of the Williamson Act. The court also found it relevant that despite the cancellation, agricultural use would continue in limited amounts and the site represented only a small portion of contracted land in the County. The court also relied on the fact that solar uses were only temporary, because after plant closure, the developer was required to reclaim the land to its agricultural use.

The decision represents an important legal precedent for solar developers or other renewable energy proponents eyeing projects on land subject to Williamson Act contracts. As the facts do not appear to be especially unique, the decision helps pave the way for others seeking to develop similar solar projects on contracted lands.

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