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September 03, 2009

Land use revalidation exceeds Albemarle assessor’s expectations; some Supervisors concerned too many landowners will get hit with roll-back taxes

Reader comments (0) By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Over 85% of Albemarle County landowners participating in the land use taxation program have submitted revalidation forms, exceeding the expectations of County Assessor Bob Willingham. The deadline to submit a form without incurring a late fee was September 1, 2009.

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The Board enacted the revalidation process in October 2008 to satisfy critics of the program who claimed it was being abused by people who were not actually using their land for agricultural purposes.  Properties that qualify for the program are granted a property tax rate that is lower than the fair market rate.

Forms were sent in late May to the owners of all 4,927 parcels in the program.

County Assessor Bob Willingham
“As of [the deadline], we’ve received 4,206 back,” said Bob Willingham, the County’s Assessor. “That’s about an 85% success ratio.” The remaining participants have until December 5, 2009 to submit their form. After that, they will be considered to be non-compliant with the program, and subject to paying the fair-market value for the past five-years. This is known as the “roll-back” tax, and can be a hefty amount.

Three weeks ago, the County began a public relations campaign to publicize the deadline.

Supervisors Ann Mallek (White Hall) and Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) even made personal phone calls to landowners in their districts, encouraging them to return the form.

Some Supervisors concerned about impact of roll-back taxes

Under the program, a landowner must submit a new form any time the use of the land changes, or if their parcel is subdivided. Willingham said that during the revalidation process, many landowners are hoping to adjust how their land is classified to take advantage of an “open-space” category.

The advantage to a landowner is that no agricultural work needs to be done to maintain the land use taxation.  For instance, in order to qualify for the forestry category, a landowner must provide a forest management plan.

To qualify for the open-space category, a landowner must:
  • meet Virginia law’s definition for open-space
  • must have more than 20 acres
  • no construction or major disturbances could be permitted during the course of the agreement
  • land must be either under a conservation easement, in an agricultural-forest district, or part of an open-space use agreement signed by the County Executive by the end of this year
Members of the Board were concerned that at least some of the landowners will not meet that last requirement in time. That would mean their land would be subject to “roll-back” taxes.

“It’s that transition that I want to know more about because what people understand is that they [may] have roll-back taxes when they’re only trying to transition to the right category,” said Supervisor Mallek.

Willingham said that in many cases, he has no alternative but to impose the roll-back tax if a landowner is not in compliance.

“People don’t want to hear that, but what you’ve got is a situation where people in a number of cases have had land-use for a long time and they really haven’t qualified,” said Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett).

Supervisors had the chance to adjust the open-space category at the meeting. An ordinance to authorize County Executive Bob Tucker to accept the open-space commitment agreements was on the consent agenda for the September 2, 2009 meeting. Supervisor Mallek and Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) were concerned that 20 acres was too large a requirement for open space. But Rooker was reluctant to decrease that figure.

“I would be very cautious about going down the road of adopting a plan that basically allows a lot that doesn’t have a house on it to qualify for land use,” Rooker said.

Thomas said she was concerned that elderly landowners might no longer be able to maintain their land, and consequently their qualification to remain in the land use taxation program.

“I’m sure you’re going to get a few people and it’s going to be horrendous and maybe force them off their land,” Thomas said. She said she would like to find a way to help connect those individuals with people willing to work on farming projects.

“We are working very hard with people not to remove them from land use,” Willingham said. His staff is educating landowners about how to become compliant if they are not already. Willingham avoided stopped short of using the word ‘lenient.’

"You don’t have to harvest trees every year. If you’re talking hardwoods it might be a 100 years. In agriculture, you don’t have to produce a crop every year because it’s good to let the land go fallow and regenerate,” Willingham said.

Mallek asked if there was any way to prevent such landowners from being penalized. County Attorney Larry Davis said state law requires roll-back taxes to be applied if the use of the land changes.

“If someone has stopped farming and made no provisions to try to continue farming for an extended period of time, that would be a change of use to a non-farming use,” Davis said. “If someone stopped farming for one season and had been continuing to try to find someone to till the property, that may be able to be determined to simply be idle and not be a non-qualifying use. That’s a judgment call that the assessor has to make.”

Supervisors will revisit land use taxation in 2010 to see how the revalidation program may be tweaked.


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