Land Zoning and Water Use

The Williamson Act is a California law that allows the County to comply with an owner’s request to re-zone property as agricultural land, provided the owner is willing to commit to a ten-year term. This limits the property taxes the owner has to pay to be based on agricultural revenues, and prevents the land from being developed during a rolling 9-year term. If you own agricultural land and it isn’t zoned properly, you may be paying more than you need to in property taxes.

Along those same lines, Timberland Preserve Zoning (TPZ) allows property owners to be taxed on the value of timberland minus the value of the timber (trees). The Mendocino County ordinance defines timberland as follows:

“Privately owned land, or land acquired for state forest purposes, which is devoted to and used for growing and harvesting timber, and compatible uses, and which is capable of growing an average annual volume of wood fiber of at least 15 cubic feet per acre.” This is directly from Mendocino County Ordinance # 3335. (So this is not my grammar.)

The TPZ designation is also a ten-year commitment, similar to agricultural land under the Williamson Act. Although timberland is subject to property tax, the timber standing on the land is exempt from tax until harvested. If timberland isn’t zoned TPZ, however, trees standing on the land may be assessed on the basis of their esthetic or amenity value.

Big tracks of land (both agricultural and timber) are looking pretty dry with our current drought conditions, even after the few inches of rain we got recently. While property owners with a lot of land may feel the drought most acutely, property owners of all sizes can conserve water.

The biggest crop in our region isn’t a legal one, so it’s hard to regulate water usage, but I admire local ranchers (above and below the law enforcement radar) who use innovative methods to use rainwater effectively, capture runoff, recycle as much water as possible, and implement low-water practices.

Because Mendocino County is a big agricultural area, water is vitally important locally. All of us, residential users and agricultural users (legal and otherwise), need to do whatever is within our capacity to conserve our scarce water resources.

Speaking of illicit activity, be aware that if you have commercial property in Willits (especially property that is often vacant), you may be at risk for water theft. Thieves have been driving their trucks up to vacant properties, connecting a hose to the spigot, and filling their mobile water tanks. If you go to your local hardware store, you can purchase a spigot lock. The friendly folks at Mendo Mill have them available for about $10. The lock screws into the faucet, then you add a padlock, and your water is protected.

Lots of people have opinions about how best to save water. According to a 2012 Pacific Institute report, a small percent of California’s water footprint is associated with direct household consumption and industrial uses, while the majority of water goes toward agricultural uses. If you read the report, available at, it suggests that we, as consumers, may have more power to affect the drought than we think. It advocates that we change our purchasing habits to reflect water consumption. It’s an interesting read. The report has a very specific agenda that has nothing to do with water, but the statistics are very informative.

Even when we have normal rainfall, when we’re not in a drought, we still have a water storage shortage. We should explore new storage resources, whether that means dredging Lake Mendocino, raising the dam, or developing off stream storage facilities. This drought will surely come to an end; but just as surely, we will have water shortages in the future. Postponing dealing with the problem will not solve it.

Next time I’ll write about COSTCO, friend or foe. If there’s something you would like me to write about or if you have questions about real estate or property management, feel free to contact me at or visit our website at If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 35 years.

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