Saturday, August 11, 2012
Editorial Board, August through January 2012
- Scott Stanford, general manager
- Brent Boyer, editor
- Tom Ross, reporter
- Shannon Lukens, community representative
- Scott Ford, community representative
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The Routt County Board of Commissioners has the unenviable task of trying to interpret a new state law that seeks to more fairly apply agricultural tax status to land parcels throughout the county. But the ambiguity of the law notwithstanding, we expect the commissioners to be fair and consistent in their rulings. We’re not sure they lived up to that standard in two recent rulings.
By denying the tax status appeal of Storm Mountain Ranch property owners but upholding a similar appeal by an elderly couple that owns property on Routt County Road 33, the commissioners have given the impression of applying different standards to different property owners.
First, a little background:
House Bill 1114 was adopted in 2011 as part of an effort to restore a more equitable distribution of the overall property tax burden by withdrawing favorable agriculture tax rates from the 1 acre of land on which a rural home sits if the occupants of that home are not directly involved in farming or ranching. Put simply, if a homeowner isn’t “integral” to the agriculture operations of the property, then his or her home’s building envelope can’t be taxed at the significantly lower agriculture rate. The new law separates the parcel of land directly underneath the home from the rest of the property owner’s land, effectively allowing for different tax rates depending on the uses of the land and the occupants of the home.
It’s important to note that any resulting increases in a property owner’s tax bill from the loss of agricultural tax status doesn’t result in increased tax revenues for the county. Instead, it lessens the tax burden on all other residential property owners within the county.
As a result of the implementation of H.B. 1114, the Routt County Assessor’s Office took on the task of evaluating for tax purposes about 1,380 parcels within the county. Some — including Storm Mountain Ranch and a 390-acre parcel of land off C.R. 33 owned by Kenneth and Ethel Ashley, of Fort Collins — had their agriculture tax status revoked as a result of the review. Those property owners can appeal the ruling to the commissioners, acting in their role as the Board of Equalization.
Storm Mountain Ranch’s dozen homeowners had their appeal heard July 30. While the commissioners acknowledged the difficulty in applying the vague wording of H.B. 1114 to Storm Mountain Ranch, a land preservation subdivision of million-dollar homes surrounded by large tracts of open space and agriculture land, they ultimately ruled that Storm Mountain Ranch’s four homeowners association meetings a year and numerous conference calls among owners to discuss the property’s agriculture operations didn’t qualify those homeowners as “integral” to the property’s agriculture operations.
The next day, July 31, the commissioners heard the appeal from the Ashleys. The couple, both in their 90s, leases their land for grazing and haying. A modular home on the land is occupied by a ranch caretaker. The modular home’s building envelope was determined by the Assessor’s Office to qualify for continued agriculture tax status because the home’s occupant is indeed integral to the ranch operations. The property’s other home, however, is infrequently used by the Ashleys during visits to the area. The Assessor’s Office determined that because the home wasn’t occupied full time by people integral to the property’s ranching operations, the agriculture tax status shouldn’t apply to it.
The Ashleys argued that their trips to the ranch are to confer with the caretaker and to “outline our expectations.” They also acknowledged that they haven’t been able to travel to the ranch recently. Nonetheless, the commissioners ruled in favor of the Ashleys, meaning favorable agriculture tax status will remain in place on their seldom-used home.
We can’t blame some in the Assessor’s Office for being frustrated by the conflicting rulings, and we assume the homeowners of Storm Mountain Ranch feel the same. (They, like all property owners, can also appeal at the state level.) It seems difficult to justify why an elderly couple’s occasional visits to check up on a ranch are more “integral” to a property’s ranching operations than an active homeowners association that meets quarterly to do the same.
It’s true the commissioners have a challenging task in ruling on individual tax appeals, each with their own nuances. But that’s why it’s even more important for consistency in rulings. It’s unfortunate that these two judgments leave doubt as to the fairness of such decisions.