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Land Use cuts posed: Open space and forests on possible chopping block

Posted on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 9:30 am


A tax official’s report revealed that Essex County would recover over half a million in revenue if forestland and open space were removed from Land Use.

While the county would see an immediate reduction in money deferred to the program, the official shared that the elimination could cost more money to county taxpayers in the long run.

On May 14, Commissioner of the Revenue Thomas Blackwell presented a detailed analysis to supervisors breaking down the number and total cost of deferred acres in each category of the program.

The different types of land that were analyzed consisted of agriculture, horticulture, forest and open space.

Blackwell’s figures indicated a monetary gain if the county were to cut forest and open space from land use.

With the total deferred revenue amounting to $1,193,255.90 for land use in tax year 2013, based on the proposed tax rate of $0.84 per $100 of valuation, Blackwell said the elimination of the categories in question would realize $600,807.91 for the county.

But Blackwell pointed out, however, that land use was put in place to control economic growth and development in a region.

“The argument is that if we had to build another school in the near future, it’s going to cost a lot more than what we’re deferring in land use,” said Blackwell. “Land Use doesn’t stop growth, it just keeps it from running away.”

On April 29, John Magruder, a consultant forester who is also in land use, spoke in favor of the program at the public hearing for the pending budget.

“If we have land use, we can control the development in county, and if we don’t have that tool, then we run the risk of becoming a Spotsylvania or Stafford County,” said Magruder, who added that those and similar counties were building schools at a greater cost to taxpayers than it took to maintain land use.

“What that tool gives us is a way to slow down the development,” he said. “Growth is inevitable. It’s needed. But we just want to be able to control it.”

As of press time, the board’s consideration of Blackwell’s numbers remains undetermined.

Blackwell compiled the information at the behest of Greater Tappahannock Supervisor and Chairman Stanley Langford, who inquired into the effects of potentially eliminating the forest category from the program.

According to Blackwell, parcels characterized as forestland featured mainly trees, while some forest properties included marshes and swamps.

Blackwell said that if forestland were removed from the program, then the county would also have to discard the open space category because, he reasoned, citizens who wished to remain in the program could simply put the land in open space.

Blackwell said some county citizens shared a perception that large corporations owned a majority of forestland in Essex County, and that these corporations were receiving tax breaks through land use.

In the report he presented to the board, Blackwell noted that of the 104,249 acres in land use, 73,473 received deferments for forest and open space.

He added that five out-of-state corporations combined to own less than 5,000 acres of forestland primarily for what he said were land investment purposes.

A further breakdown of the figures outside the presented report showed that John Hancock Mutual Life owned 1,408 acres, Forestree Gm LLC owned 1,854, Ardoe, L.L.C. 555, Heartwood Forestland Fund 420 and Hawaii Ers Timberland LLC 684.

Based on analysis of the reported figures, the land owned by large firms in Essex County represents roughly 7 percent of total forest acreage in the county’s land use program.

The principal remainder of the forestland, Blackwell shared, was held by individuals and local lumber companies, thereby negating the perception of large corporations monopolizing county forestland.

Blackwell also said he knew that some, if not all of the tree farmers in Essex County, belonged to the forest category in land use and would therefore be affected by the potential elimination.