Who owns America?

Published 12:31 pm Monday, August 17, 2020

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Betsy Burdett

Conservation Corner


This is the last Corner that I will write based upon the ideas of agricultural professor John Ikerd’s lecture that I heard so many years ago. It has to do with one of the last things he said that I’ve never forgotten. He said that all ‘open land’, regardless of where it lays, should be appraised for property tax purposes at a nominal rate. Taxation should apply only to what lies above the land, that which is manmade.

Just in case you’ve forgotten from last month, the three cornerstones of land use sustainability are ecological soundness, economic viability and social justice.

We treat land as a financial asset. Like an investment. Our history of using land primarily for uses that are economically advantageous has had huge long-term consequences. Land is viewed as an investment rather than that which sustains all life, ours as well as the live creatures. We own the land and take great pride in looking at our lovely mowed lawns, but who owns the air, the water and the bees who pollinate the foods that we eat?

In New York City, air rights are sold. We know that for years water rights have been sold, along with mineral rights. My question is: What gives us the right to sell that which was freely given to us, by our creator, for sustenance of all life? My short answer to that question is that the air and the water belong to all creatures, regardless of who ‘owns it’.

How do we fix the problem of unfair taxation of ‘un-improved land’ [i.e. with no manmade structures upon it] that is now being taxed according to its potential [highest and best use] value for residential or commercial development?

In the 1980’s, the State of NC created the Present Use Value (PUV) tax deferment system for land that is used for farming, horticulture or forestry. This was done for the sake of ecological soundness as well as for social justice. Without forest and farmland we have no food, or clean water or clean air. PUV deferments can only apply to parcels of land equal to or larger than 5 acres for horticulture, 10 acres for active agriculture, 20 acres for forestry.

Around 2008, the NC legislature added a fourth category for wildlife, requiring 20 acres or more. If farm or forest land is conserved with a conservation easement held by a 501c3 Conservation Organization, a Trust, or a governmental entity, then the land is still eligible for the PUV deferment in perpetuity, even if the land is no longer actively farmed.

The problem facing Polk County now is the fact that none of these deferments apply to small acreage. But we can solve that problem, if we care enough to act. State law allows for governmental agencies to hold short-term (10 years or so) conservation easements on open land regardless of acreage. If a landowner sells his/her property for development, then three years of ‘highest and best use’ property taxes must be paid to the county and/or municipal governmental unit.

Polk County already does this with the Voluntary Agriculture Districts, an Enhanced Voluntary Agriculture Districts. But, none of these property tax advantages work for small acreages. Those are the parcels of land that are paying high property taxes because of our rising real-estate values, and those are the parcels that will soon be all gone. Picture that in your mind and see how you like it.

But, as I said before, we can change that.

We can ask our elected officials to consider holding temporary (10 year+/-) conservation easements on undeveloped parcels of land used for small organic farms, wooded areas, gardening or pastures and thus at least give it our best effort to preserve the rural atmosphere of our county as much as possible.

But, it is up to us, as citizens, to raise our voices to our elected officials who have the power to make this change.

I’ll end with this quote that I read in The Sun magazine last week by Charles Darwin:

“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”