By KAY MATTHEWS
For the past several years folks in Taos have been working—and struggling—with the state and county to expand agricultural property tax statutes and regulations to accommodate changing climate and demographics and keep as much land as possible in agricultural production. During last year’s legislative session Taoseños—including County Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell, New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) lobbyist Patricia Quintana, and members of the Agricultural Resolution Team—helped pass Senate Bill 112 , which amends the definition of agricultural use for property tax valuation to include resting the land under certain conditions. Those conditions are “moderate drought conditions as designated by the United States Department of Agriculture, if the drought conditions occurred in the county within which the land is located for at least eight consecutive weeks during the previous tax year.”
Over the course of the last few years the Taos County Assessor’s Office, at the direction of the state, has been reviewing properties that claim the agricultural exemption to ascertain if they actually qualify. Of the hundreds of properties that have been visited thus far (mostly in the immediate town of Taos area) a large percentage has lost the exemption, resulting in very large increases in property taxes based on market value.
Last Thursday, December 10, the NMAA, the Taos Valley Acequia Association, and Taos Soil and Water Conservation District sponsored a workshop to familiarize folks with the state statues and county regulations that govern an agricultural tax exemption, updates on these exemptions, and how to protest the revocation of an exemption.
Enrique Romero, a native of Nambe who works for the Land and Water division of New Mexico Legal Aid, laid out the specifics of the regulations that govern agricultural property tax exemptions that county assessors must follow. These regulations are laid out in the New Mexico State Statutes Section 7-36-20. Lands that meet these criteria are taxed at a third of their market value.
The agricultural valuation is based on the “land’s capacity to produce agricultural products,” not their actual production. Agricultural products include: plants, crops, tress, forest products, orchard crops, livestock, poultry, fish, captive deer or elk, wool and mohair, hides and pelts, and dairy products and honey. Landowners need to provide evidence that any of these products were used for sale, subsistence, resale by others, or as feed, seed, or breeding stock. The ag land must be at least one acre in size except if the products produced are orchard fruit, poultry, or fish.
There are three types of agricultural lands: irrigated, dry land, and grazing, which are assessed at different rates in different counties. In Taos, irrigated land is assessed at $491 per acre; dry land at $120 per acre; and grazing at $4 per acre.
Taos County Chief Appraiser Nick Sanchez was present to answer questions that pertain to Taos County. He and his staff, which according to Sanchez is woefully inadequate, “hit the ground running” in January to try to look at all properties in the county that claim the agricultural exemption. Of the 600 properties they’ve inspected this year 60 percent were disqualified. In 2014 the disqualifications added nearly $51 million to the county’s tax base.
“We’re not going out and attacking land owners,” Sanchez said, but trying to weed out those properties that are obviously not capable of production and trying to help those landowners whose property has the potential to be productive find ways to be in compliance with the regulations. He explained that if property is undervalued it places a disproportionate burden on other market property that must be taxed to meet county value levels. Rectifying the values could result in lower tax rates and lower taxes for all county residents.
While taxation values need to be equalized, several people pointed out that the definition of what qualifies as agricultural land needs to be broadened to include categories of open space or greenbelts that will help prevent the development of agricultural lands. They also pointed out that just as the 2015 state legislature recognized the impacts of drought on agriculture, so too should it recognize the changing demographics that make it harder for folks to keep their lands productive: the aging of the farming community; the economic pressures that force our children to leave; and the lack of equipment and resources available for folks to grow food or raise cattle on their lands.
Sanchez told the group that for the second year he has approached the state legislature with a proposed regulation that would help the elderly retain their agricultural exemption by freezing the amount of tax paid after the age of 65. He also pointed out that his office allows people to combine non-contiguous lands to meet the minimum requirement of one acre in size. “We bend as much as we can but we don’t break the law.”
Sanchez came out to my property last summer after I discovered that my agricultural exemption had been revoked and I filed a protest (protests for next year must be filed by April 30; forms are available online or call the county assessor’s office at 575 737-6360). I have eight acres of irrigated land in two parcels; my house, garden, orchard, and hay field comprise the upper parcel, fed by an acequia; my lower parcel consists of a hay field, fed by another acequia. When I filed the protest I discovered that horses do not qualify as stock in the agricultural regulations (based on a 1999 state court decision). After raising a hay crop on both parcels for more than 20 years I continued to irrigate but let the pastures rest the last two years; my horse and a neighbor’s mules ate the standing grass.
Sanchez told me I needed to either cut the hay as a crop or put cows in the pastures to re-qualify for the agricultural exemption as my three years under the new drought regulation are up this year. I asked another neighbor who still raises cattle to put them in the field in the fall and will try to find someone to cut the hay next summer. My situation reflects that of many other folks in the villages of el norte: I’m 65 and hard pressed to do all the irrigating and orchard and garden work by myself (my co-editor and domestic partner Mark Schiller died in 2010). My kids don’t live here. The neighbor who cut my hay and put his cows in my fields for those twenty years died in 2009; his son sold the cows the following year. The drought makes it more difficult to get the irrigation water to the areas of the field usually kept in good shape by the monsoon rains.
Paula Garcia, executive director of the NMAA, told the crowd that the Agricultural Resolution Team (Peggy Nelson and Toby Martinez) and the Assessor’s Office will continue to work with the legislature to advocate for policy changes that will help us maintain our agricultural lands in this time of transition.