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Tax saving designation of conservation land increases in Hall County

Legislature expands allowable uses

POSTED: July 11, 2013 1:47 a.m.

In 1992, property at 4654 Shirley Road was in conservation land use, saving tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes. Today it’s still in conservation land use.

A 20-year-old state law to protect green spaces has ballooned into a way for more property owners to save on property taxes and make some money.

Currently Hall County has 2,466 covenant holders, with an exemption from the tax digest of $316,267,770. That is assessed value and not actual tax dollars, said Don Elrod, assistant director of the county assessment division. Hall County uses 1 mill for every $1,000 of assessed property value, with property assessed at 40 percent.

There were 831 parcels of conservation property in 1992, The Times reported then. The covenant is for 10 years.

The law received its latest updates in this past legislative session. Farm weddings became an allowable use effective July 1 and forest land becomes a qualifying use Jan. 1.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said the Senate bill, which focused on farm weddings and nonprofit equestrian events, was designed to broaden agriculture investments and agritourism in the state. Whether a fee is charged for the weddings is up to the local government, he said.

Farm weddings have become a hot button issue in Hall County recently because of the local government’s attempts to define and regulate “agri-entertainment.”

Two event barns, LL Farms and the Walters Barn, which in part prompted the county’s actions, don’t have their barns on conservation land.

But questions have arisen about the kind of legal events permitted on conservation land. One of the conditions in the proposed ordinance now cautions that the agri-entertainment use on conservation land must not violate the covenants of the property.

A second reading on the proposed ordinance is scheduled at tonight’s Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting.

The county defines agri-entertainment as a gathering of individuals for social, celebratory or entertainment purposes at an agricultural location in an agricultural district.

The state defines agritourism as charging admission for people to visit, view or participate in operation of a farm or dairy production for entertainment, education purposes or sales.

The original law was to relieve the tax burden of farmers, especially those around urban sprawl where vast amounts of space attracted developers, and to fairly tax timber farmers.

Today, the qualifications for the land program remain similar to those passed by the General Assembly in the early 1990s, but the number of allowable uses has expanded.

“It’s written so broadly there’s not many properties that don’t qualify now,” said Steve Watson, Hall County chief tax assessor.

The qualifying land use purposes include timber or woodlands, crop cultivation, pastures, “environmentally sensitive areas,” and beekeeping operations. The forest land use was added in the assembly’s last term, which ended in March.

The timber business has been hit very hard in the economic downturn, Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said.

“This was mainly taking care of the wood production folks down in South Georgia,” Rogers said.

Allowable uses include leasing it for mineral exploration, letting it lie undisturbed for a certain number of years, leasing it for a cellphone tower, and constructing and operating a corn maze. That part of the property ceases to be part of the covenant and is valued at fair market value.

Conservation use property is assessed at 40 percent of current use value, which gives property owners a reduced assessment compared with other property assessed at 40 percent of fair market value. The law prefers 10 or more acres, Elrod said.

The Shirley Road property, which is about 207 acres of land, saved $32,387 in the difference between the value and the tax bill in 1992, The Times reported that year.

The current owner is a family partnership that includes Virginia Roberts, Jacqueline Shirley and Lewis Shirley. The family saved about $10,000 on their current tax bill, which was lower because of improvements to the land, Elrod said.

“Since (my dad) passed away in 2009, I really haven’t done anything other than keep things status quo,” Lewis Shirley said, referring to S.L. Shirley Jr. “We haven’t done anything to break the covenant.”

The state determines the values of the covenant based on soil types and production potential, said Ellen Mills, tax digest compliance manager at the Georgia Department of Revenue.

“You have to have a bona fide agricultural operation going on,” Mills said. “Basically the primary purpose of the property’s got to be the production of an agricultural product, which includes timber.”

Allowed use is up to the local governments, Mills said. Farm weddings don’t qualify someone for conservation use property. There are allowed uses for agritourism, she said.

Penalties from breaching the covenant are double the amount of taxes saved during the exempted period.


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