Biscuit Run reform: Deeds would loosen secrecy... some
In Virginia, tax returns are so sacred that a section of code forbids state officials from revealing individual info– even if those individuals have reaped millions of dollars for their land from state taxpayers.
Such was the case of Biscuit Run, where developers attempted to parlay a dubious $88-million appraisal– practically double the land's $46.2-million boom-time purchase price– into a bail-out for the underwater development by re-purposing the land as a state park and taking $11.7 million in tax credits atop the $9.8 million sales price, all aided by a Virginia law that shrouds the details from public scrutiny.
It was only a leaked appraisal that allowed the public to see how Biscuit Run's former owner, Forest Lodge LLC, was attempting to recoup its losses at taxpayer expense. And with Virginia's land conservation easement program, which has been called the most generous in the country, handing out over $100 million a year to landowners, the potential for abuse is significant.
Last year, even as outrage mounted, the program's creator, State Senator Creig Deeds, declined to promise major reform. However, now that the Biscuit Run backers have risked further tarnish to the state's lauded rural protection program with a lawsuit, Deeds has decided to shine a little more sunlight. His SB355 would require the Department of Taxation to annually publish the assessed value, appraised value, and the amount of credits issued for each property winning a land preservation tax credit.
"It identifies the parcel," explains Deeds, "and people can make their own judgments about whether it warrants the amount of tax credit it got."
For critics, however, the bill doesn't go far enough.
"For real reform, they wouldn't have tax credits at all," says Norman Leahy, contributing editor to Bearing Drift, a conservative political blog.
"I encourage them to be more aggressive," says Leahy. "The state needs to keep track of this money they're handing out."
Leahy worries that Deeds has already tempered his reform by tailoring it to what will "sell" in the General Assembly. He says opposition would most likely come from a small group of high-dollar beneficiaries of the program.
Appraiser George Dodd calls the bill a "start," but he wants the appraisals and tax credits open to public scrutiny before any deal is finalized.
"Otherwise," says Dodd, "it's closing the barn door after the horse is out."
Senator Deeds, who hails from rural Bath County, remains a defender of conservation easements.
"I'm not proud of Biscuit Run," says Deeds. "But in the long run, the program is going to benefit all of us."
From the other side of the aisle, Republican Senator Emmett Hanger offers another endorsement of conservation easements. His SB403 would raise the conservation tax credit rate for working farmers from 40 percent to 50 percent of fair market value.
Both bills are in the Senate Finance Committee.This story is a part of the The Biscuit Run cash grab special.