Local farmers defend tax breaks

Local farmers defend tax breaks

A week after the county Board of Supervisors decided to consider changing the land use tax program, local farmers are still distraught. Since 1975, Albemarle has granted landowners a tax deferral for a minimum of five acres that meets prescribed standards of agricultural use. Basically, the land must be used for the sale of crops and/or livestock, or be in an approved soil conservation program.

For a small farmer like Kathryn Russell, it can make for a patchwork of tax statuses. Her Majesty Farms falls into various categories, with 19 of 21 acres falling under the deferral system. As part of the land use tax, she must pay full tax on her house and at least one surrounding acre. With the reduced rate, she paid $2,702 for the 21 acres. “I would have to pay twice that much if I didn’t have land use,” Russell says.

Small farmer Kathryn Russell says that the county should extend land use tax to smaller parcels. “You can do a whole lot on two acres,” she says.

Meanwhile, on an adjoining four acres on which she rotationally grazes sheep, she must pay full price, which came to $900 last year. Russell also has another five acres on which she built a house that she plans to sell. While she grazes cattle on much of that land, it is not put under land use because of the presence of the house, which makes for a tax bill of $3,100 a year.

One supervisor has proposed that farmers put their land in open space conservation easement, which bars the owner from ever building on the land, in order to qualify for the land use program. But because many farmers rent the land they farm, that measure would bring its own problems.

“If land use is changed, then they can’t afford to rent to me,” says Dan Holsinger, a dairy farmer in Augusta County, which has a land use tax system similar to Albemarle’s. Holsinger says he can’t afford to buy any more land at today’s prices, especially when he is barely scraping by. “Land use is the one thing that keeps me in business.”

Another reason given for scrapping the tax deferral is the fear that the exemption is being exploited by landowners looking for a tax break.

“Folks may not be following the letter of the law,” says county assessor Bruce Woodzell. He has eight assessors at his disposal, many of which spend a good deal of time out in the county assessing land, and as they do so, checking the land use. Woodzell estimates that assessors view every parcel in the county every 18 months. That will be changing as reports are now required on an annual basis, instead of biennially as they were before.

“They won’t be in the field as much as they used to be,” he says, estimating that it may take up to three years for a parcel to be inspected. Theoretically, that would increase the opportunity for abuse. Still, he cannot remember when was the last violation of land use.

As a result, farmers like Russell reject the suggestion that the land use tax system be changed. In fact, she thinks it should be broadened.

“If [supervisors] were really for small farms like they say they are,” Russell says, “they should extend land use to be helpful to those who work on small projects. You can do a whole lot on two acres.”

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