Be a hero in your own community

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sometimes this column is hard for me to write, and sometimes it is easy. This time it’s hard because the concept that I am trying to explain is way out of the box, and thus difficult to explain.

I guess that many of us are trying to figure out what to do in reaction to our newly elected government, especially in the field of the environment. There’s a good chance that many regulations put into place in the past 40 years will be repealed.

Is that going to be a disaster, or not? Many of our regulations have had excellent results; the fact that the Chesapeake Bay is now producing oysters is a good example.

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But some of the environmental regulations have done little more than create middle management jobs and provide economic security to all sorts of engineers. Some of the required procedures are nothing more than paperwork.

How will we, as citizens, respond to the lack of state or federal rules in order to preserve the integrity and environmental health in our community and our state?

One of the life lessons that I learned from horseback lessons is that I cannot go forward on a negative. Instructors kept telling me what not to do, rather than what to do. The old cavalry rule “thumbs up, heels down, and watch where you are going” ended up being what put me on the right path.

Without regulations, what can we do to make sure Lake Adger does not fill up with silt and we don’t have a dozen more catastrophes like Chocolate Drop Mountain in the future. I say, “pay attention.”

We all know that many parts of our political system are messed up, but in the past it was easier to let little things slide and let someone else deal with the problem. However, being a responsible citizen requires more.

Why have we expected money from the state or federal government to build our parks and recreational areas when we have not cared enough to do it ourselves?

Why have we accepted laws that have been on the books for years when they should have been modified as our local state demographics have evolved? I believe that’s what some call apathy, or maybe just plain laziness. I’m guilty; we all are.

I now want to tell you about an issue that has bothered me for a long time, yet I do not know how to deal with it because the practice has been on the books for many, many years. It has to do with property taxes.

North Carolina has three property tax categories: agricultural, commercial, and “highest and best use” residential. As more people move into the state, property values go up and higher taxes follow. That may be fine for wealthy new arrivals that boost our economy, but it is very hard for the subsistence farmer or local minimum wage earner with three children.

In 1974, the N.C. General Assembly realized that our farmers could not survive, and thus the state would lose its farmland, unless something was done to reduce the property tax burden on large pieces of land. For agricultural land the legislature created a Present Use Value (PUV) tax deferment option for agricultural or forest land that taxes property according to its present use rather than its “highest and best” economic (potential) use.

Acreage parameters for eligibility into the system are a minimum of five acres for horticulture, 10 acres for agriculture, and 20 acres for forestry. In 2010, a wildlife category was created to relieve the tax burden for parcels of land (20-acre minimum) with significant wildlife habitat.

Property owners enrolled in PUV must produce a crop (trees, vegetables, etc.) and lands in Wildlife must remain “as is” in order to remain eligible for the lower PUV tax rates.

The problem that the legislature recognized in 1974 has hit our local municipalities, and there is no one but us to figure out how to address the problem. If vacant lots in our small towns are taxed at the “highest and best use” residential rates, soon there will be no vacant lots left.

Most of us have grown up in neighborhoods where we could run down to the vacant lot at the end of the street to get away from our mother after she told us to clean up our room. That option will not be available to our grandchildren if there are no vacant lots left.

Do we expect the old lady who owns the vacant lot with the little pond that the neighborhood children swim in every summer to pay $1,500 in property taxes every year, year after year? Or the landowner who allows a greenway through his vacant lot; he pays more than a thousand dollars in property taxes every year, for us to use, for free.

There’s an old saying, “Tax what you don’t want, but do not tax what you do want.” It’s time to change our tax code if we want to preserve open land within our rural municipalities, yet we cannot leave that up to our public officials to implement. Their job is to get as much money in the town and county coffers as possible. It’s our job to tell our elected officials what we want, and keep on pushing until the changes we want are made.

What’s more important: economic development or quality of life? I bet you know the answer. Since I’m full of quotations today, here’s one for you to take home:“Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better.”

~ Studs Terkel