Clark County landowners who have been benefiting from tax breaks for owning farms without producing anything will soon face a hefty fine.
The Clark County Assessor’s Office is auditing 2,773 parcels of land enrolled in the state’s Current Use Farm and Agriculture program, which allows farmers property tax reductions as long as their land is producing livestock or crops.
So far, the county has looked at 510 parcels and found that 35 fail to meet state requirements, for a total of about 362 acres. On average, those property owners are receiving bills of $38,000 for unpaid property taxes, interest and penalties.
“When they’re not paying their property taxes, everyone else is picking up the bill,” Assessor Peter Van Nortwick said.
The livestock or crops must be grown with commercial purposes in mind, so don’t get too many ideas about turning your prolific patio garden into a tax break. A five-acre farm, for example, must have produced at least $200 worth of product per acre for three of the last five years.
“When you’re in farm and ag, you’re required to be actually commercially farming,” Van Nortwick said, “which means you have to have income.”
An audit of this size is long overdue. Van Nortwick said the county should be assessing agriculture land regularly, but fell behind in recent years.
“It takes quite a bit of time, actually, to plan it out,” Van Nortwick said.
Though the massive back-tax bills can be a hardship for families who suffered through a few bad years, local agriculture advocates and farmers paint a picture of wealthy developers who abuse the program.
“It’s a farmland conservation program that has been abused by large developers to minimize their tax burden until their land is able to be subdivided,” said Warren Neth, chair of Slow Food Southwest Washington.
Bill Zimmerman, president of the Clark-Cowlitz Farm Bureau, praised the efforts of the assessor’s office, saying the bills will crack down on those landowners who may be hanging on to agriculturally viable property.
“We see large cracks of land that are just being tied up, nothing being done with them,” said Zimmerman, who also owns Bi-Zi Farms northeast of Vancouver. “They’re not producing milk, they’re not producing raspberries, they’re not producing anything.”
A second round of audits is ongoing for 446 parcels, and audits will continue until all 2,773 parcels in the program are inspected. Landowners may be able to appeal the decision, Van Nortwick said.
For more information, call the assessor’s office at 360-397-2391.