California Solar-Use Easement (13-CA-d)
The California Land Conservation Act, also known as the Williamson Act, allows local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners in order to restrict the landowner from using the land for anything other than agricultural or open space use. Since 1990, there has been an average of more than 15 million acres of land encumbered by Williamson Act contracts. The landowner, by agreeing to limit the land’s use, receives a much lower property tax assessment based on the land’s use, rather than the full market value of the land. The term of the contract is a minimum of 10 years and, unless either party files a notice of nonrenewal, the contract will annually renew to the originally agreed upon term after the first year. This system ensures that unless a party takes an affirmative action the expiration date is always a decade away. The process to terminate a Williamson Act contract involves a comprehensive review and approval process with the landowner paying a cancellation fee of 12.5 percent of the full market value of the property.
See Williamson Act
A Farmland Security Zone contract consists of an area of at least 100 acres and provides similar restrictions on land use as a Williamson Act contract. A Farmland Security Zone provides for a lower property tax assessment rate and has a minimum term of 20 years with the same automatic renewal term process as a Williamson Act contract. The longer term of a Farmland Security Zone contract allows a property owner to claim up to a 65% valuation reduction from what can be claimed under a Williamson Act contract. In order to be eligible for a Farmland Security Zone contract, the land must be designated as predominantly prime farmland, farmland of statewide importance, unique farmland, or farmland or local importance. See Farmland Security Zone
Privately owned land that is restricted in use because of a Williamson Act contract or a Farmland Security Zone contract may be eligible to rescind the contract and enter into a solar-use easement if certain conditions are met. The solar-use easement would require the land to be used for a solar photovoltaic (PV) facility for the term of 10 to 20 years. The California Government Code sets out the requirements that a parcel of land and the landowner must meet in order to be eligible to enter into a solar-use easement. The purpose of the statutes is to encourage the development of utility-scale PV energy facilities on marginally productive or physically impaired land by allowing the rescission of Williamson Act and Farmland Security Zone contracts. Once the contract is rescinded the land will be placed into a solar-use easement, effectively removing it from the Act. The California Department of Conservation (DOC) has the authority to approve, in consultation with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the rescission of the previous conservation contract and authorize the solar-use easement.
If DOC approves the solar-use easement, the land must be used for PV facilities that will provide for the collection and distribution of electricity, and the landowner will only be allowed to alternatively use the land for incidental or subordinate agricultural, open-space uses, or other alternative renewable energy facilities. The city or county that was party to the Williamson Act contract will be party to the easement agreement as well. The city or county will be responsible for enforcing the solar-use easement and may require specific restrictions of the landowner beyond those imposed by the easement. Once DOC and the city or county has approved the solar-use easement the land is qualified for the siting of PV facilities.See Solar-Use Easement
Solar-Use Easement Process
3-CA-d.1 to 3-CA-d.2 – Does the City/county Jurisdiction Participate in a SUE Program?
The Solar-Use Easement statutes allow local officials and landowners to mutually agree to rescind a Williamson Act or Farmland Security Zone contract on marginally productive or physically impaired lands if they simultaneously enter into an approved solar-use easement. Certain city/county jurisdictions do not participate in SUE programs. The process may only continue where the land is eligible and the local jurisdiction participates in the program or does not otherwise prohibit SUEs.
3-CA-d.3 – Application for Solar-Use Easement and Supporting Documentation
A landowner seeking to rescind a Williamson Act contract or a Farmland Security Zone contract in order to use the land for a PV facility must be granted approval for the solar-use easement by both the city or county and the DOC. The landowner must first submit an application and supporting documentation for a solar-use easement to the city or county that is party to the Williamson Act or Farmland Security Zone contract. Both the landowner and the city or county must mutually agree to consider, if eligible, rescinding the prior contract and enter into the solar-use easement.
See 14 CCR § 3102
3-CA-d.4 – Will the City or County Consider Approval of the Application?
If the city or county will not consider approving the application then the landowner is not eligible to rescind the prior contract and cannot enter into a solar-use easement.
See 14 CCR § 3102
3-CA-d.5 to 3-CA-d.6 – Eligibility Request
Once the city or county has agreed to consider approving the application, the city or county must submit a request for eligibility, the landowner’s application, and any supporting documents to the DOC. The landowner must also submit an application fee of $7,100.
See 14 CCR § 3100
3-CA-d.7 – Review Application Materials
In order for the land to be eligible for a solar-use easement, the DOC must determine that either:
- The land consists predominately of soils with significantly reduced agricultural productivity due to chemical or physical limitation, topography, drainage, flooding, adverse soil conditions, or other physical reasons; or
- The land has severely adverse soil conditions that are detrimental to continued agricultural activities and production. Severely adverse soil conditions may include, but are not limited to, contamination by salts or selenium, or other naturally occurring contaminants.
In addition to the above requirements, the landowner must also show that the land is not designated as prime farmland, unique farmland, or farmland of statewide importance, defined by the Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program. If the land is designated as prime farmland, unique farmland, or farmland of statewide importance, the DOC may determine that the site is still eligible for a solar-use easement if it finds that circumstances exist that limits the use of the parcel for agricultural activities. In order for the DOC to determine whether these circumstances exist, the landowner must submit, if applicable, any of the following:
- A demonstration that even under the best currently available management practices continued agricultural practices would be substantially limited due to the soils reduced agricultural productivity from chemical or physical limitations;
- A recent soil test demonstrating that the characteristics of the soil significantly reduce its agricultural productivity;
- An analysis of water availability demonstrating the insufficiency of water supplies for continued agricultural production;
- An analysis of water quality demonstrating that continued agricultural production would, under the best currently available management practices, be significantly reduced; or
- Crop and yield information for the past 6 years.
For specific requirements for each of the above submissions see Solar-Use Easement Advice, pages 3-6.
Application and Supporting Documentation The application should include the following information:
- The project name and the number assigned by the city or county;
- A list of the parcel numbers associated with the project;
- The total number of acres currently under contract to be rescinded for the solar-use easement;
- A location map of the project site, including parcel boundaries;
- The current farmland classification for the project site as defined by the Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program;
- The project start date, its projected life, and its projected energy production;
- A written narrative describing the facts that are being used to support the application;
- Any other information needed to support the eligibility criteria claim;
Written Narrative The written narrative should factually demonstrate that, even under the best currently available cultivation and management practices, continued agricultural use of the site is substantially limited due to the soils reduced productivity from chemical or physical limitations. The landowner must reference a USDA NRCS soil survey of the purposed site including a soil map, the land capability classification and a description of the primary physical or chemical limitations to agricultural use of the site. The narrative must also include the existing agricultural uses of the site, the typical cultivation and management practices used, the existing agricultural conditions in the surrounding area and county, and a discussion of the best available agricultural management practices, explaining whether these practices would allow for continued production of the proposed site.
3-CA-d.8 – Does the Land Meet the Eligibility Criteria?
If the DOC, after consulting with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, determines that the proposed site is eligible for a solar-use easement, the landowner must submit a Soil Management and Site Reclamation Plan to the city or county and the DOC.
3-CA-d.9 – Soil Management and Restoration Plan
Once the DOC has determined that the land meets the eligibility criteria, the landowner must submit a Soil Management and Site Restoration Plan. The plan must describe how the landowner will manage and protect the soil for future agricultural use during the time of the easement. The plan must also detail the process for restoring the site after the life of the solar-use easement and describe how impacts to adjacent agricultural operations will be mitigated.
The soil management section of the plan must include information about practices that will be utilized during the construction activities, operating activities, and removal activities. The plan must take into account soil protection, concurrent grazing activities, irrigation, and maintenance activities during the life of the easement and any impact on the soil during the removal process. The site restoration portion must describe how, at the termination of the easement, the land will be restored to the same condition that existed prior to approval of the solar-use easement. The plan must include the procedures to be used in restoring the site and provisions for monitoring the progress of restoration of the site. The DOC and the city or county may include requirements or restrictions on the landowner in addition to those required by statute.
See 14 CCR § 3108 for more specific requirements for the Soil Management and Site Restoration Plan.
3-CA-d.10 - Does the Department of Conservation Approve the Eligibility Request?
If the DOC does not approve the Eligibility Request, the process ends.
3-CA-d.11 – Send Notice of Approved Eligibility Request
Once the DOC approves the request for the solar-use easement, the city or county will be notified and finalization of the easement agreement can occur.
3-CA-d.12 to 3-CA-d.13 – Does the City or County Approve the Solar-Use Easement?
When the city or county receive notice that the DOC has approved the solar-use easement, the city or county will be required to include as conditions of approval, all recommendations from the DOC regarding the Soil Management and Site Restoration Plan and require that the plan be implemented by the landowner.
See 14 CCR § 3109
When the solar-use easement agreement is finalized it must be accepted by the landowner and the city or county. Once the agreement is accepted it should be recorded in the office of the county recorder and a copy filed with the county assessor.
See GC § 51191.6
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