On a mountaintop high above the fertile plains that still tenuously link Ventura County to its farming roots, actor Larry Hagman has built a sprawling mansion with a majestic ocean view.
But when county officials calculate the taxes on the land surrounding Hagman's $2.5-million home, they consider it not so much an exclusive retreat, but grazing land.
In the eyes of the county, nearly all of Hagman's 30 mountaintop acres are an agricultural preserve. Such parcels are typically valued at $40 an acre--not the thousands that Hagman paid--and are taxed at about 40 cents an acre.
Hagman's parcel is far too small to qualify for such a break--it would need to be 80 acres to qualify as grazing land. Nor does its rugged terrain seem suited to support 20 animals, as required.
But because Ventura County does not enforce its own strict guidelines meant to implement a 1965 state farmland conservation act, officials acknowledge that Hagman and owners of thousands of other acres countywide receive tax benefits for which they may not qualify.
The result is that Ventura County loses large--but uncalculated--sums each year in questionable tax subsidies to dozens of property owners--including Hollywood stars, an English lord, a television production company, a former U.S. ambassador, a gravel pit operator and wealthy absentee landowners.
Several of these properties are in Hidden Valley west of Thousand Oaks and near billionaire David Murdock's Sherwood Country Club, in one of the nation's richest communities.
Murdock himself has part of his 1,000-acre Arabian horse ranch in Williamson Act preserves. But as a breeder of horses and cattle, his ranch qualifies under county regulations as a legitimate livestock operation, officials said.
Aware that many participating owners are not farmers or ranchers, county officials say they are studying a crackdown on tax breaks for landlords who do not engage in bona fide commercial agriculture.
A recent county survey of 18,680 acres subsidized under the California Land Conservation Act of 1965--the so-called Williamson Act--found that 6,300 acres did not qualify for the property tax breaks.
If that 34% disqualification rate stands up countywide, about 51,000 acres--an area the size of Oxnard, Ventura and Simi Valley combined--could be removed from the farmland preservation program.
"Why haven't we enforced it?" asked county land-use supervisor Nancy Francis, who monitors Williamson Act contracts. "Time and money."
County government--and its special districts--receive less than half of each property tax dollar in unincorporated areas, so it took the random survey last summer to persuade officials that they could recoup their enforcement costs by cracking down on the undeserving.
County Planning Director Keith Turner now estimates lost property taxes at possibly $1 million a year and says he will probably recommend an enforcement program to the Board of Supervisors within two months, once he figures out more precisely how much the county might gain.
"Government revenues are in short supply and we've got to be looking at all opportunities," Turner said. "And one has to question the wisdom of allowing these people to continue to receive these tax breaks. . . . We think there is a problem out there."
Frustrated farmers--some of whom helped tighten county Williamson Act guidelines in 1984--say the tax dodges have got to stop, because they sully the image of true farmers and ranchers and erode public support for a good program.
"It makes farming look bad," county Farm Bureau President Tom Pecht said. "The system that's been put in place for real farmers shouldn't be abused."
John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau, said:
"Our position is that we must protect the integrity of this program. If it is ever seen as just a tax break for real estate speculators or a tax shelter for wealthy homeowners, our program is going to be in jeopardy."
Concerned that California was paving over some of the world's best farmland, the Legislature decided in 1965 to allow cities and counties to give tax breaks to farmers and ranchers who agreed to keep their land in agriculture or open space for 10 years.
The law, named for onetime Assemblyman John Williamson, required that farmlands be valued on their production, not on prices speculators pay for comparable parcels. That kept farmers from being taxed off their land as cities pushed toward them.
About half of the state's crop and grazing lands--15 million acres in 48 counties--is now enrolled in the program. More than one-quarter of all privately owned land in Ventura County--about 151,000 acres--is under Williamson Act contracts.
Supporters say the act has protected farmland from leapfrog development and given local governments time to draft plans for orderly growth. It also acts as a backstop against shifts in the political wind that can override the best-laid community plans.