Does a popular Acampo winery violate California’s Williamson Act, which has provided tax breaks to preserve agriculture since 1965?
The San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation maintains that Viaggio Winery, nestled along the Mokelumne River west of Lower Sacramento Road, violates the Williamson Act by using the Viaggio property for non-agricultural uses.
San Joaquin County officials disagree, saying that Viaggio doesn’t violate state guidelines for the act, and Viaggio owner Kent Raverty says he’s in compliance.
And the California Department of Conservation, which oversees the Williamson Act on a statewide level, says the Viaggio case is under investigation.
Responding to a complaint the Farm Bureau filed with the state, the Department of Conservation sent a letter to the county in December, ordering county officials to determine whether Viaggio Winery has committed a “material breach” of the Williamson Act.
The Farm Bureau has publicly opposed the use of Viaggio’s land. In addition to filing the complaint with the state, Farm Bureau representatives have testified before the county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. And Farm Bureau President Phil Brumley wrote a letter that was published in The Record in Stockton earlier this year.
“One of our most important programs in the county is the Williamson Act, plain and simple,” Blodgett said. “We’ve got over 80 wineries (in the county) that do things the right way.”
Viaggio conducts events like wedding receptions that are non-agricultural events, which could affect the future of the Williamson Act, Blodgett said.
“We respect individual property rights, but when impacting thousands of property owners within the county, these are types of things the (state) Department of Conservation has asked about.”
The Farm Bureau claims that part of the Viaggio property is being used for non-agricultural activities like wedding receptions, fundraisers and corporate functions.
Viaggio says it seems to be something personal that Farm Bureau members have against him.
“The Farm Bureau wants to beat us up, but not listen to a word we’ve got to say,” Raverty said. “There are a lot of jealous people (at the Farm Bureau). They don’t harass anyone else. They want to make an example out of us. It’s unfair, it’s wrong.”
Viaggio is nestled on 26.2 acres between the Taddei-Bender road intersection and the Mokelumne River, west of Lower Sacramento Road. Raverty has one acre of winegrapes on his property and another 10 acres of cabernet down the road. He also grows 17 acres of walnuts.
“I have so many people who come through here who love us, love our facility,” Raverty said. “I’ve had people come here from all over the country.”
In a response to the state Department of Conservation, Rick Griffin, a county senior planner, said that Viaggio complies with the Williamson Act for two reasons — all structures on the property are used for agriculture and wine tasting and marketing events held there are “accessory uses” to having a wine cellar.
California Department of Conservation officials declined to immediately comment.
“I can’t give you a comment because it is under investigation,” conservation spokesman Don Drysdale said on Thursday.
On March 30, the Board of Supervisors allowed Viaggio to increase its marketing events from a capacity of 150 people to 370, which the Farm Bureau also contested on the grounds that a fundraiser or corporate event isn’t agriculture-related.
Supervisor Ken Vogel, who voted against increasing the size of events at Viaggio along with Steve Bestolarides, has several questions about Viaggio.
“Does it meet the way the winery ordinance was set up?” Vogel asked rhetorically. “The Farm Bureau said that events should be ancillary to the sale of wine, not the other way around.
“I’m concerned about impact on production agriculture,” Vogel added. “It could be a problem down the line for the Williamson Act.”
Raverty said he tried unsuccessfully to get Farm Bureau President Phil Brumley to tour Viaggio and discuss the Farm Bureau’s concerns.
“I have put in multiple phone calls trying to have a meeting with the president of the Farm Bureau,” Raverty said. “I don’t believe they know what we do and who we are.”
Brumley didn’t return calls for comment Thursday and Monday.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at email@example.com.
Williamson Act at a glance
The Williamson Act was adopted in 1965 to halt widespread urbanization of agricultural land. Under the program, property owners agree to not urbanize their land. In exchange, the county and state compensate them for their reduced property value.
Counties have been partially reimbursed by the state for their reduced property value, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut the state contributions to counties last year to $1,000. In San Joaquin County, the Board of Supervisors voted in November to absorb the $1.7 million the county previously received from the state. Schwarzenegger continued the funding reduction in his May budget update.
The Williamson Act is important in San Joaquin County because it has 542,851 acres in the program. That’s 12th-largest in the state, according to the California Department of Conservation. Kern County is largest with 1.7 million acres, followed by Fresno and Tulare counties, according to Department of Conservation spokesman Don Drysdale.
There are about 16 million acres statewide in Williamson Act, about half the privately owned land in the state.
— News-Sentinel staff.