NEWS- Rural-centric: Supes continue land use support

What would seem to be a snooze-inducing agenda topic– Review of Land Use Taxation Program– drew more than 100 people to an Albemarle Board of Supervisors' work session May 14 that was fraught with tears, jeers, and an urban v. rural clash. The supes proclaimed their support for Albemarle's agricultural tax incentive– critics call it a "tax break for the rich"– but they agreed to consider making changes to the program to weed out illegitimate faux farmers.  

The land use program basically is this: farmers get a tax break for growing grapes– or trees or open space– instead of subdivisions. Farmers contend they couldn't afford to farm in the county if their land were taxed at market value. 

A small but vocal group of urban-ring residents argue that many who get the break are developers, or McMansion owners whose 21-acre lots can't be subdivided further anyway, and that 97 percent of taxpayers paying their full tax bill have to subsidize the 3 percent of county residents enrolled in land use. 

The amount of land in Albemarle's land-use– 60 percent– has declined from 65 percent in 2001. But rising property values means land-use tax breaks will cost the county nearly $19 million in lost revenues this year.

"How many abuses has the county actually found?" queried Scottsville Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier.

"We have found situations where the standards are not being met," answered assessor Bruce Woodzell, who explained that his staff isn't able to eyeball every land-use property every year. "We send a letter and work with them to meet the standards over a year. If they don't meet them, they're taken off."

"Basically the program is working pretty well, and we haven't found abuse," Dorrier reiterated.

County staff recommends an annual re-validation of land use properties– a topic that's come before the Supes three times since 2001 without action– and wanted to know if the county should study changing the program.

Perhaps because land use was studied in 2001, most of the supervisors balked at a citizen committee to pursue the issue. Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) warned that tweaking the program could result in unintended consequences. "I don't want to take the community through a gut-wrenching process," he said.

"I've been on those committees," said Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller district), who compared the process to "mountains giving birth to mice." She suggested that land-use critics are "envious" when they see a big house surrounded by land whose owner is getting a tax break.

The county's most urban district is Rio, and its rep, David Slutzky, drew boos when he suggested that conservation easements– prohibiting further subdivision of the property– be a condition of getting the land-use tax benefits.

"People in urban areas have expressed strong resentment to me," said Slutzky, particularly for land-use enrollees who have no further development rights.

"My vote is everyone in land use put their land into conservation easements," he said.

"Dream on, you son of a b****," muttered a local farmer in the audience.

Opponents claim land use is a favorite haven for developers who park their future Biscuit Runs or Forest Lakes in the low-tax program until they're ready for the bulldozers.

"We are in effect subsidizing those people, making their holding costs cheaper, even with a five-year rollback," said Slutzky, referring to the market-value taxes that are paid if the property is developed.

The Supes were clear that they were not going to discuss eliminating land use, but agreed 4-2 to a public hearing to discuss whether further refinements of the program are needed, with Boyd and Dorrier remaining in the ain't-broke-don't-fix-it camp. 

"I've gotten phone calls from farmers who don't like to see abuses of the program," said Thomas, whose own 11 acres in Ivy are enrolled in land use, saving her around $1,500 annually in property taxes.

 Afterward, White Hall resident Linda McCraven, with tears in her eyes, said she found Slutzky's use of the phrase "behavior modification" six times "very disturbing." She objects to his conservation easement stance, contending that would prevent her children from inheriting her land.

McCraven was also upset that opponents call those who own more than one acre "land bigots."

On the other side of the issue, Glenmore resident Paul Accad described the work session as "a smaller step than I would have preferred."

He likes the idea of a study to educate citizens on the purpose of land use and determine whether the program has been effective over the past 25 years. He adds that he's "disappointed" the county had never done a re-validation in the program's history.

Accad agrees with Slutzky that land users should have conservation easements. "I believe farmers should have land use in perpetuity," he says. "But they want to keep the development rights. I don't want to subsidize development. If development rights are gone, I'm happy to support land use in perpetuity."

North Garden farmer Brian Walden brought a chart that showed how Albemarle's prime agricultural land is now sprouting houses, and he says without land use, he couldn't afford to farm. Rising food prices could help illustrate the value of land use. "As it gets more difficult to buy food, people will get it," he predicts.



I concur with David Slutzky. Land use taxes should require that at least a portion of the tax-advantaged property be placed in easement

Be careful of what you wish for. Every unbuilt house lot or piece of property is paying more in taxes - $3.12 per dollar in received services - than a residential property which pays only 82 cents on the dollar. Every single, new house costs all existing taxpayers more money to service it; with 1.9 average children per household to educate, the county loses over $13,000 beyond what it can collect in taxes, paid for by you and me through tax hikes. So the stronger the tools are to keep land undeveloped, the less we all have to pay in taxes. Conservation easements are, and would remain voluntary even if the land-use tax program were ended. Will farmers sign away their land rights in order to save a few thousand dollars a year in taxes? No. Farmers will instead sell a piece their land (a form of insurance in the event of a catastrophe - not a housing development waiting to happen), breaking off small lots to pay the higher taxes. It would only take one-third of all landowners in the Land Use Tax Program to sell even a single lot in order for the new tax losses from increased home building to completely overwhelm the supposed $18.8 million windfall by ending the program. We'd all lose - and not just money; the rural landscape would be disappearing even faster. After it becomes unaffordable around here, where are you going to move to? This is the last stop.

I'm afraid, as the county "puts the screws in" or forces folks to sign an easement, rural landowners will protest. Owners may choose to sell developable lots before the new rules go into effect. Think of the cost to hire new Albemarle staff to enforce any new rules. The county would need to notify violators, investigate various situations, and enforce any new rules. The biggy is: People are not stupid. They will figure out ways to "get around" any new regs. We all know the county will not push too hard to catch violators either. It is common knowledge, Albemarle will shy away from any situations whereby angry "farmers" threaten suit. In the view of many, the best decision is to leave well-enough alone.