The first of its kind in the nation, Napa County’s agricultural preserve might not have happened if it weren’t for the watchdog efforts of then-Napa County Assessor George Abate. Abate alerted other county and state officials here, not only to the far-flung threats to agriculture, but also to new state programs designed to help farmers and keep agricultural land in production.

Abate, a no-nonsense assessor first elected to his post in the early 1960s, recalled how assessment scandals in several areas of California prompted new legislation regulating the practice of land valuation. That legislation sent shock waves through agricultural counties around the state.

Assembly Bill 80 dictated that county assessors must value land based on comparable nearby property sales. It was on these assessments that taxes were then collected.

Abate recognized the possibility that a few acres of idle farm land, sold at a high price for home sites, might have to be used as a precedent for assessing similar tracts in the neighborhood. One or two land sales in any given area could trigger higher assessments, effectively forcing nearby working farmers to sell their property in order to pay a much higher tax bill.

But the impact of AB 80 didn’t escape notice of Sacramento legislators, either. Led by Assemblyman John Williamson, the California Legislature in the mid-’60s enacted a new law designed to preserve agricultural and open space land in danger of premature conversion to urban uses. The California Land Conservation Act of 1965, commonly referred to as the Williamson Act, enabled local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. In return, landowners received property tax assessments much lower than normal because they were based on farming and open space uses, as opposed to full market value.

Abate presented his concerns to County Administrator, Albert Haberger, who sensed the urgency to stem the tide of urban sprawl in Napa County. Haberger built a team that could explain the need to pass legislation protecting county Ag land (which included just 25% of the vineyards that would be planted 50 years later). He enlisted the help of Mervin Lernhart, then deputy county counsel, in drafting the legislation that would create the first agricultural preserve in America.

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