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Council delays decision on extension of farmland tax breaks
By Colleen Smith Armstrong, Islands' Sounder editor/publisher
The county council heard from impassioned supporters of the farmland conservation program during its regular meeting on Orcas last week.
“I used to think this program was for wealthy landowners who wanted a tax break,” said audience member Bob Gamble, who also serves on the planning commission. “But I've seen the people who come through on these applications, and they are long-time farm owners. I've changed my opinion.”
The public hearing was for an ordinance to change farmland conservation rules so that current-use tax assessment benefits can be extended to more properties for longer periods of time. After listening to testimony, the council voted to continue the hearing on June 3 in Friday Harbor.
Land used for farming can receive reduction of tax assessments below "fair market value" if a farmer meets certain criteria for profitable farming under state law.
"Current use farmland" tax assessment reductions are administered by the county assessor. These reductions are not time-limited, but if active farming ends, back taxes and penalties can be imposed.
Land not used for actual farming for a period of time can receive reduced assessments from the county council if the owner meets certain criteria set by county law. It is this law that is the subject of the proposed new ordinance.
Under the current county law, the land must either be returned to active farming within 10 years or the owner must enter into a conservation easement permanently prohibiting development inconsistent with agricultural use. The proposed change would extend the time limit for returning the land to active farming to 20 years.
Other criteria must be satisfied before the council can grant the assessment benefit, including that the land in question must be “sub-dividible,” that is, the area of each subject property must be equal to or greater than two times the maximum residential density of the underlying zoning district.
The requirement that the land be sub-dividible would be eliminated by the proposed ordinance.
Chairman Rick Hughes is in favor of the change, saying the 10-year limit on returning farmland to active agricultural production may not be reasonable because of the time it takes to return fallow farmland to profitable production.
It was an opinion echoed by many locals in attendance, who spoke to the need of preserving open space and allowing farmers adequate time to get an agricultural business up and running. But Hughes says he is also aware of the “shifting tax burden” to other county property owners and was not ready to vote on the ordinance yet.
Councilmen Bob Jarman and Jamie Stephens are both interested in extending the timeline but would also like to do more research before making a decision.
“The key component to this is enforcement,” Jarman said.
Assessor Charles Zalmanek spoke against the ordinance. He said “opening the door” to more people will cause a tax burden to other taxpayers and could invite landowners who are trying to cheat the program.
Hughes disagreed with Zalmanek.
“Even if we extend it, there are still requirements that have to be met to participate,” he said.