Imposing a quarter-cent sales tax could raise enough money to purchase and preserve farmland throughout the county, according to a report being presented to county supervisors today.
The proposed tax is one option included in a report outlining ways to implement the SOAR growth control initiative approved by voters last fall.
Other proposals contained in the 35-page report by the SOAR Implementation Committee include extending for another decade tax breaks for farmers who keep their land in agriculture. The board also might set up a special district to campaign for the tax and/or raise money through donations and grants.
By state law, any new tax for a specific purpose such as buying farmland must be approved by at least two-thirds of the voters.
But the proposal has not been popular up to now. In January, Ventura County officials met with city representatives to discuss how to handle the growth-control Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources measures approved around the county. At that time, most city officials doubted a new tax to preserve open space would gain public support.
On Monday, some city managers were split on whether they would support a special district--and on whether one is even needed. "If you have SOAR in place, why would you need to acquire development rights to preserve land?" Camarillo City Manager Bill Little asked. "Open space and farmland is already protected under SOAR for the next 20 years."
His city was one of several--including Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard and Moorpark--where voters passed growth control ordinances. A countywide SOAR measure preventing farmland and open space outside cities from being rezoned for development without voter approval also passed.
But Ojai City Manager Andrew Belknap differed on the tax idea.
"The concept might be supported in the Ojai Valley," Belknap said. "We have a very active land conservancy that's been in existence for 10 years, and the city has always been interested in land preservation."
Rather than forming a new district, the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy might join with the Ventura County Agriculture Land Trust in an effort to conserve farmland and open space. The land trust already has a budget of $1.2 million.
Or, the county and cities may wish to form a Joint Powers Authority, which would seek grants and other funding.
"This is just at the talking point," said Supervisor Frank Schillo, a member the SOAR Implementation Committee.
"We need to see whether there is public support for this. . . . Our intention is to meet with each city."
A local quarter-cent sales tax hike would "produce quite a bit of revenue" to purchase land, said Supervisor John Flynn, another committee member. An open-space district and quarter-cent sales tax increase approved by voters nine years ago in Sonoma County has proved successful, he said.
"We're only talking about this as an option," Flynn added. "The public might not like the option. . . . We don't want to bring a whole flurry of controversy with this."
The implementation committee will meet with city managers and elected officials beginning early next month to further debate the merits of an open-space district and other aspects of the measure.
Supervisors are also set to review the farmland conservation law. Last year, the California Land Conservation Act of 1965--the so-called Williamson Act--was amended to allow counties to extend 10-year contracts with farmers to 20 years.
Farmers who agreed to keep their land in agriculture for at least 20 more years would receive up to a 35% reduction in property taxes. The 20-year option would also establish Farmland Security Zones--land that school districts would be prohibited from buying.
That plan is also likely to spark debate. In 1993, a planning department survey showed that owners of thousands of local acres enrolled in the conservation program were receiving undeserved tax breaks.
Supervisors considered a crackdown on the tax breaks, but decided it might force some marginal farmlands out of the conservation program and encourage construction on them.