Miner threat

A routine item pulled from the Butte County Board of Supervisors consent agenda Tuesday provoked a discussion about how mining operations fit in with land conservation.

The matter was a standard approval for county staffers to send out annual letters to landowners who have signed contracts with the county under the Williamson Act, the 1965 law that pays those who own prime agricultural lands to leave them undeveloped. The act was intended to safeguard farmland, thus keeping California at the top of the country’s ag exporters.

But Richvale Supervisor Curt Josiassen, a rice farmer himself, pulled the item—not to discuss farming, but mining.

For years, mining firms that own land subject to the Williamson Act have been allowed to operate mines on those lands, thus subsidizing their operations. But a recent interpretation by the state Department of Conservation changes the situation somewhat.

“They’re taking the stand now that mining only means picking up the raw material. It does not mean processing the raw material on that land,” explained Jim Prouty, manager of Mineral Resources, which operates a sand mine near Cherokee. While that site is not covered under the Williamson Act, a property the company owns and was looking to develop is. Under the new interpretation, workers would have to transport any material taken out of the earth to a different processing site to remove impurities. In this case it means packing tons of sand—as well as the soil and clay attached to it—into hundreds of trucks and shipping it to a site where it can be washed and bagged. “It just adds a tremendous amount of cost and makes it not as competitive,” Prouty said.

Williamson Act contracts are typically signed every 10 years as agreements between property owners and the counties in which they reside. Owners agree to keep the land undeveloped, which allows them to pay property taxes at a reduced rate. Meanwhile, counties are reimbursed for the loss of property tax revenue through a state fund. The act has saved thousands of acres of California farmland from development since 1965. Still, an average of 45,000 acres of farmland is “urbanized” in the state every year.

Landowners can opt out of the contract, but the fee for doing so is steep. Once a Williamson contract is cancelled, the property is reassessed and taxes are charged at the current rate, along with a fee equal to 12.5 percent of the current value of the property.

Oroville Supervisor Bill Connelly said he is concerned about losing jobs and taxes in his district. For example, the Martin-Marietta basalt mine on Table Mountain, which operates on Williamson Act land, Connelly said, pumps $700,000 in wages and about $1 million in property taxes into the local economy each year.

“They’re willing to pay to withdraw from the Williamson Act, but it’s not a free ride. They do that, all the sudden we have land that we’ve got to rezone because it’s no longer grazing land and can never be returned to that.”

Besides of the possible loss of open space and the expense of rezoning huge parcels in the foothills, Connelly said, there are smaller operations that will be affected disproportionately.

“It’s been a huge subsidy to some of these smaller mines and ranchers,” Connelly said. “I know one [property owner] that gets about $60,000 a year from this. Well, they’ll be out of business.”