League of Women Voters Address Agriculture PreservationBy Janine Unsoeld
A bill that seeks to update property tax program and help small farms across the state is scheduled for a hearing in front of the House Finance Committee on Thursday, January 30, 1:30 pm, in JLOB House hearing room A. Legislative schedules are subject to change.The bill, technically known as E2SHB 1437, concerns small farms under the current use property tax program for farm and agricultural lands, and is scheduled last on the agenda.
Currently, for farms less than 20 acres, the one acre under a farm house is assessed at the 'highest and best use'. This subjects smaller farms to a higher tax rate and works against efforts to preserve working lands.Farmers say that taxing one acre of a small farm at fair market value hurts small farms, and ask that all farms in the current use program be assessed the same.
Farm land that is enrolled in the Open Space program is currently assessed based on current use rather than fair market value. This reduces pressure to convert farmland to other uses.Thurston County Assessor Perspective
In a telephone interview held earlier today with Thurston County assessor Steven Drew, Drew said he doesn’t think the bill will get out of committee.In response to an article published by Little Hollywood on January 22, Drew explained his position about HB1437, and his role as an assessor, saying he actively supported the bill as it passed out of the House last year.
“The thing that is often lost and not well represented is that I support the concept and the bill as written. I did a great deal of work with Senator Fraser and Representative Reykdal to engineer the bill so it would pass….”Drew said the bill was a result of a five year dialog with interested stakeholders.
“It was not the utopian bill, but what passed out of the House had the best scope. Just prior to the Senate hearing, I was informed…that it was not going to pass out of (the Senate) committee….I intended to save the bill, not oppose it….I was trying to keep it on life support.“The tension between small and large farms is unfortunate…I don’t think the bill will get out of the Finance committee. There’s a healthy tension between what can be done to keep the issue on the forefront….Maybe this can lead to studies and citizen initiatives, but the goal is to find a way to help a bill that would pass and address part of the problem.
“There are issues with quarter horse ranches, stables and uses – those are real sticking points. The number one reason why the Legislature amended the citizen initiative…was an abuse of the original law as passed. Believe me, I got an earful from the county assessor association for being ‘off the farm’ so to speak. Anything that challenges the purity of the state process is seen as a negative, but that’s nonsense, right?“You could put a couple horses in a field, or grow crappy hay, or sell hay to your neighbor who buys it back just to get the tax break – that’s abuse! Some large farmers are abusing this and getting tax breaks, so the large farmer does not like idea of opening it (the legislation) up.
“There’s a factual issue, a reason why home sites are valued at one acre and the state board of tax appeals has consistently ruled in favor of that one acre parcel. We are obligated, as assessors, to uphold state law, but prefer not to value in that way. This is why I’m interested. Everything I do is driven by statute, and that limiting factor creates a disparity. I seek a solution.”Agriculture Preservation Forum
The League of Women Voters of Thurston County held a farmland preservation forum tonight at United Churches of Olympia. About 60 people were in attendance including City of Olympia Stephen Buxbaum, Olympia councilmember Nathaniel Jones, and Port of Olympia commissioner Sue Gunn.Information gathered from the forum will be used to update the national League’s position on federal agriculture policy, which it hasn’t updated since 1988. R. Peggy Smith of the League introduced the speakers, saying, “New thinking is needed. The loss of farmland is one of the biggest agricultural issues in Thurston County.”
Speakers and topics included:Lucas Patzek, Thurston County director of Washington State University Extension, gave a current and historical statistical overview and inventory of farmland in Thurston County. My Favorite Quote: “How are we going to preserve big farms within the urban growth boundary?”
Steven Drew, Thurston County Assessor, spoke on the economic aspects of farming and the Open Tax program in Thurston County. Favorite Quote: “Our policies are not keeping up with the pressures to urbanize…we need creative solutions to meet those pressures.”Chris Wilcox, a fourth generation owner of Wilcox Farms in Roy, spoke about his family’s farm and the need to be continually innovative. My Favorite Quote: How do you change an egg? We have organic eggs, omega-added eggs, liquid eggs, and hard boiled eggs…we didn’t do this by accident.”
Loretta Seppanen, a board member of South of the Sound Community Farmland Trust, spoke about her organization’s efforts to purchase and preserve farmland. The organization assisted Kirsop Farm with the leasing of its land on a 99 year contract, and purchased land now called the Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy. My Favorite Quote: “The Farmland Trust buys the whole farm and leases it back to farmers…who will use the land to produce food for our community….”Lisa Smith, executive director of Enterprise for Equity, discussed her organization’s successful collaboration with regional partners to assist in the business development training of local farmers. My Favorite Quote: “You’ve heard how hard it is to be a farmer…that’s why I’m not a farmer…so when you buy that food, please eat it!” (Smith cited the 2012 National Resources Defense Council report statistic that 40% of food in America is thrown away uneaten.)
For more information about farmland preservation and HB 1437, go to www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com, and read “Small Farms Try Again for Tax Program Changes,” published January 22, 2014 and other stories using the search button and typing in key words.For more information about legislative bills and schedules, go to www.leg.wa.gov. Legislative schedules are subject to change.
Above: Produce from Kirsop Farm at Acqua Via restaurant in downtown Olympia - a great example of a local "farm to fork" connection.