Spring 2012 pg8


The Relationship of the General Plan and the Williamson Act:

by Debbie Provolt

In the Buck Mountain Ranch matter, an absurdity has come to pass. County planning and assessor’s offices told Robert McKee on many occasions that because the Tooby Ranch was under a Williamson Act contract, if he were to convey parcels to others, he needed to convey parcels of at least 160 acres insize. Mr. McKee relied on the direction of the county and all parcels he conveyed to others were at least 160 acres in size. The county filed suit against Mr. McKee for doing precisely what they directed him to do over 10 years ago. With all the millions of taxpayers dollars spent by the county pursuing the Buck Mountain lawsuit, and with all of the millions of dollars Mr. McKee is spending defending himself (and the property rights of others) in this suit, we want to know: WHAT IS THE BENEFIT TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC?

The Tooby Ranch is located in unincorporated Humboldt County. The Tooby Ranch is comprised of a large number of parcels created by federal land grants made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through federal “patent deeds”. Under controlling law (the Subdivision Map Act), the conveyance of a federal patent from the federal government creates a legal parcel. Some of these parcels had separate county Assessor Parcel Numbers and some did not.

Arthur Tooby owned the ranch and ran cattle on it for many years. Mr. Tooby entered into his Williamson Act contract with Humboldt County in 1977 that was consistent with the county general plan and zoning ordinances. Upon Mr. Tooby’s death, his Estate decided to sell the ranch. In October of 2000, approximately 13,340 acres of the ranch were sold to Robert McKee, doing business as Buck Mountain Ranch, L.P. McKee knew the land was encumbered by the Williamson Act contract entered into by Mr. Tooby with the County. McKee retained a portion of the property and sold federal patent parcels, already existing legal lots, to 25 buyers. All of the buyers were noticed that the land they were purchasing was subject to the Williamson Act and all of the buyers understood that the Williamson Act contract entered into by Mr. Tooby ran with the land and understood that as new owners of the land, they too would be subject to the Williamson Act contract entered into by Mr. Tooby in 1977.

By the time of the McKee purchase, the Tooby Ranch had fallen into considerable disrepair. Immediate repair of improvements in order to facilitate and increase its agricultural uses were completed by Mr. McKee. This included re-rocking and grading of some of the existing roads, improving drainage systems, and fixing or replacing cattle-watering facilities. In order to keep their parcels compliant with the Williamson Act, the buyers have chosen include the following agricultural endeavors: vineyards, row crops, olive orchards, floral farms, nursery crops, pasture improvement programs for controlled hunting, and cattle herds.


Before 1971, the general plan usually was considered an advisory document. In 1971 the Government Code was amended and the law since has required that all land use approvals be consistent with a county’s general plan. The initial 1971 legislation and subsequent amendments require counties to engage in the discipline of setting forth their development policies, objectives and standards in a general plan composed of various elements of land use. The general plan thus was transformed from an “interesting study” to the basic land use charter that embodies fundamental land use decisions and governs the direction of future land use in a county’s jurisdiction. 1

In California, a general plan is the constitution for all further development within the county. It sits atop the hierarchy of local government law regulating land use. This elevated position requires that all subordinate regulations be consistent with the general plan. Generally, all lesser land use regulations, actions, or approvals (specific plans, zoning, subdivision maps, use permits, development agreements, etc.) must be consistent with the applicable general plan.


The California Land Conservation Act of 1965 is more commonly known as the Williamson Act. The original purpose of the Williamson Act was to counteract the tax laws that often led to the conversion of agricultural land to urban uses; if you were being taxed at urban rates you might as well sell to urban developers. Before that the California Constitution required that individual property tax assessments be made according to the market value of the assessed property. The county assessor was required to consider the highest and best use to which the property was naturally adapted and, therefore, could not limit consideration only to the property’s present use. In response to these concerns, the legislature made findings when it passed the Williamson Act, including that the preservation of agricultural land is necessary (1) for the state’s agricultural economy; (2) to assure healthy food for future residents of the state and nation; (3) to discourage premature and unnecessary conversion of agricultural land to urban uses; and (4) to preserve the value of agricultural lands as open space. In return for use restrictions, the landowner is guaranteed a relatively stable tax base, and local governments receive an annual subvention of the forgone property tax revenues from the state. 2

Per Government Code § 51200 et seq., to implement the Williamson Act, local government must first establish “agricultural preserves”. These preserves are like conventional zones in that they are an exercise of the planning function and express intent to limit the use of prescribed land to agriculture. However, establishment of a preserve is not an exercise of police power as is the establishment of a zone. It carries with it no sanction whatever. The purpose and effect of the preserve is to delineate the area within which local government intends to offer contracts. It delineates as well the area which local government intends to restrict agricultural or uses compatible with agriculture. Executed contracts run with the land so as to bind subsequent purchasers. Land under contract may be freely sold and divided. Each contract must be for a term of ten years, and each party (owner and county) has an annual option to renew the contract. Inaction exercises the option to renew; the effect is to maintain perpetually a ten year contract. Should either party choose not to exercise the renewal, an action agreed to by both parties is required; non-renewal.


A proposal to establish an agricultural preserve must be submitted to the planning department of the county having jurisdiction over the land. Within 30 days after receiving the proposal, the planning department must submit a report to the county board of supervisors that includes a statement that the preserve is consistent with the general plan and the board or council must make a finding to that effect. Therefore, it is clear that at its establishment, the agricultural preserve must be consistent with the local existing general plan. Nothing in the Williamson Act or the state’s planning or zoning law exempts a local government’s actions under the Williamson Act from complying with its local general plan. (footnote 2)

The courts apply general contract law to interpretation of a Williamson Act contract, including the maxim that a contract entered into for the mutual benefit of both parties is to be interpreted so as to give effect to the main purpose of the contract and not to defeat the mutual objectives of the parties. The court shall avoid interpretation which will make a contract extraordinary, harsh, unjust, inequitable, or which would result in an
absurdity. 2

1 Curtin’s Land Use And Planning
Law Daniel J. Curtin, Jr. & Cecily
T. Talbert, (Solano Press Books 24th ed.
2 A Modern Perspective on the
Williamson Act Michael P. Durkee, David
H. Blackwell, and Thomas P. Tunny
3 General Plan Diagram: Subdivision
Map Act Navigator, Michael P.
Durkee, David H. Blackwell, and Thomas
P. Tunny (2004)


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