Are we really serious about conservation, preservation of our natural resources?

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2015

It’s tax time. Allen is working on our income taxes during this cold and snowy weather, but it’s property taxes that I’m thinking about. If a landowner wants to contest the county appraised value of his or her land, an application must be filled out and submitted either in January (for agricultural/forestry deferments or tax exemptions) or in February – March (to contest the highest and best use appraised value).

Many of you readers may not understand the details of real [land] property appraisals, so I will try to give a quick and dirty explanation before I go any further.

North Carolina recognizes three categories of land for taxation purposes: residential, commercial and agricultural. For a piece of property to be appraised as commercial, it must be located in an area that is zoned for commercial development. To be taxed as agricultural/horticultural/forestry land, the property must be produce a crop annually for agriculture or every few years for horticulture; a forestry tract must be managed under an approved forestry plan that schedules the cutting of timber when trees are ready to harvest. Several years ago N.C. came up with another category for property taxes: a wildlife category that protects wildlife habitat. In order to put land in this category, an application to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission must be submitted and approved – not a quick and easy process, but a good one.

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The last category is residential, which applies to everything else. The term highest and best use refers to resale potential, or, how much could a seller get for that piece of land if he/she wants to maximize the property’s value in terms of money. I’m guessing that 90 percent of the land in Polk County is assessed according to its potential resale value, under the assumption that the property will sell someday and the seller will seek the highest possible sales price.

Now, that’s enough background information; it’s time to get into what I really want to talk about.

Ten years ago I went to a meeting in Waynesville about land policy (primarily taxation) for county commissioners. I will never forget the main premise of the speaker because it made so much sense: All land should be taxed according to the same assessed value of $500 per acre, regardless of location. Tax value should be based upon the value of the man-made ‘improvements’ that sit on that land.

Property taxes are necessary in order for a government entity to provide services to its citizens. You’ve heard many times that cows don’t go to school. That’s right. Taxes are for services pertaining to people. Trees don’t go to school either, and trees don’t care about paved roads or EMS or libraries; trees only care about light and water and soil, all of which are provided by an entity far above property taxes. If a piece of ‘un-improved’ land is near an upscale residential development or commercial zone, should the landowner be subjected to high property taxes because he could sell his land for a bundle for some buyer to ‘improve’ it? Counties have the right to lower property taxes for land preserved with a conservation easement: the value is usually reduced by half. In a high tax commercial or high end residential zone, half is still a lot.

Taxes are a man-made invention and should be left at that. Man should feel free to tax his own creations however he pleases, but to tax God’s gift of this earth seems a wee bit greedy, to put is mildly.

Does Polk County want to preserve the beautiful natural resources given to it, or do we want to make money? Do we really want wild spaces open to the public like the Shuford Memorial Park (for which the not-rich owner pays huge property taxes each year), or do we want to see undeveloped parcels go to the highest bidder?

It seems to me that if Polk County citizens want to preserve land, those same citizens will need to figure out a way to nurture landowners who do not want to maximize their profit.

Alex Salley told me an axiom years ago that holds true in this situation. “Tax what you don’t want, and don’t tax what you do want.”

If we want pocket parks and forested mountains, don’t tax the livin’ daylights out of the owners who have been kind enough to honor the gifts of creation.

One final thought: What if you inherited 55 acres of forest land too steep to farm or timber, but with homsesites near the top of the mountain with views overlooking all of Tryon and Columbus. Would you be willing to pay $2,000 every year so that the folks from Tryon and Columbus would not have to look at houses on top of the mountain, or would you sell it for $300,000 for its highest and best use?

Our elected (by us) county officials control property tax policy. If we are serious about conservation and preservation of our natural resources, it might be time for us, as a community, to put our money where our mouths are.