Landowners who have unfarmed lots between five and 20 acres will still be entitled to the protection of Essex County’s land use program, the board of supervisors decided following a public hearing held Tuesday, Dec. 11.
The decision was rendered by a tie vote from the board after Commissioner of Revenue Thomas Blackwell recommended that they increase minimum land use acreage for open space which he described as any outside property in land use that is not, or will not be, used for either agricultural purposes or forestland.
“You could still get into land use if you had five acres sitting there that you weren’t going to change…as per state code,” Blackwell said. “A locality can adopt five acres minimum or increase that minimum and [open space] is the only category that localities can change.”
Blackwell’s proposal, if approved, would have minimized the number of active open space use agreements from 33 to six following the agreements’ expiration.
Total land use agreements in Essex County account for 56 individual open space parcels, however 1375 lots qualify for the program.
Concerned citizen Sidney Johnson did not understand why Blackwell wanted to place restrictions on the program.
“You’ve got more people helping to maintain the integrity of the natural resources of Essex County versus [landowners with] 20 acres,” Johnson contended. “We’ve got a healthy, wonderful program. The only sad thing about it is we only have 46 people participating…we need to have more.”
Blackwell said that he wanted to maintain the integrity of land use by ensuring that a multitude of unfarmed five-acre lots did not become an “excessive burden” on taxpayers.
“It’s not this thing of trying to save one particular group of people or give preference to one group over another” Blackwell said. “What I was trying to do in making the recommendation is what I thought was best for Essex County.”
Central District Supervisor Edwin “Bud” Smith agreed with the program’s necessity in protecting the county’s land and resources, but said that protecting open land is “not the way” to do it.
“Five to 20 acres [of open space] is not a large amount of development,” Smith added. “If it’s not being farmed or being used for forest land…I think it should go back into residential taxation.”
Smith and Greater Tappahannock District Supervisor and Chairman E. Stanley Langford voted to raise minimum acreage for the admission of open space parcels into the program, while Northern District Supervisor Angelo “Jack” Stevens and Southern District Supervisor Margaret “Prue” Davis dissented.
Following Blackwell’s recommended open space changes, Tappahannock resident Pat Roth spoke against Essex County’s Land Use program.
Roth’s opinion, which met with applause from attendees of the meeting, asserted that citizens should be responsible for the tax burden on their own properties, as opposed to the current system which places a disproportionate tax burden on those not in land use.
“It’s the residential people who pay for this county,” Roth said, adding that she didn’t mind paying her taxes as long as she was paying her “fair share” and not anyone else’s.
70 percent of Essex County’s 165,000 acres are currently in land use or conservation easements.
Last month Blackwell set the county’s land use values for the 2013 tax year. According to Blackwell’s report to the board Tuesday, Nov. 20, agricultural/horticultural values will increase by 50 percent from $750 per acre to $1,125 per acre and productive forestal values will go up by 15 percent from $500 per acre to $575 per acre.
Nonproductive forestal land, which consists of swamps and marshlands and is currently set at $250 per acre, will see no change in the upcoming tax year.
The final values set by Blackwell were lower than the figures that the commissioner of revenue proposed to the board on Sept. 11.
The horticultural/agricultural values will be 17 percent lower than the originally slated value of $1,250 and forestal values will be set at 10 percent below Blackwell’s initial proposal of $625. Swamps and marshland values were also slated to increase by 10 percent to $275 per acre.
The finalized values will take effect on Jan. 1, 2013 and will remain effective until Essex County’s next reassessment.