La Plata County has removed nearly 50 properties from the agricultural tax status that is intended to give farmers and ranchers a financial break, but is often falsely claimed or misused by landowners who want to pay less in taxes.
Decades ago, the state of Colorado created a tax break for agricultural operators to provide assistance to the people who grow food and, as an added benefit, help preserve the open space that defines the Colorado landscape.
However, it’s a constant effort for county governments to weed out people who declare the agricultural exempt status just for the tax break.
Every two years, the La Plata County Assessor’s Office conducts land valuations, based on field investigations, land sales and other factors. As part of that process, the Assessor’s Office makes sure those claiming ag status are in fact using their land to produce a product on the land and sell it for profit.
If that’s found not to be the case, the Assessor’s Office can delist the property. Landowners then have the opportunity to protest the decision.
The largest case, said La Plata County Assessor Carrie Woodson, was a mostly undeveloped property on the corner of U.S. Highway 550 and County Road 302, known as “Vista Pacifica,” about 10 miles south of Durango.
Woodson said the property is split into 20 lots for residential development. However, only two lots have homes on them, and the rest of the property is vacant.
The vacant lots, Woodson said, had ag status, but the Assessor’s Office moved to remove the listing because a herd of sheep grazed on the property only a couple days out of the year.
“It (agricultural) really is not the primary purpose of that property,” she said. “Based on that information, we felt that use (sheep grazing for a brief time) was incidental to the primary purpose of that property, and our stance was to remove (the ag status).”
Randy Wilson, owner of the property, when asked to comment for this story, said: “No. I don’t want to talk about it.”
J. Paul Brown, an Ignacio rancher whose sheep supposedly graze on the property, did not return calls seeking comment.
After a protest is denied by the Assessor’s Office, a property owner can then appeal to the county’s Board of Equalization.
Woodson said Wilson did not bring enough proof that agriculture was the main purpose of the property at a hearing before the Board of Equalization.
As a result, more money is coming to the county in the way of taxes. Providing a rough estimate, Woodson said Vista Pacifica will now pay about $8,100 in property taxes, about $5,600 more than what was being paid under the ag status.
But the Assessor’s Office doesn’t always prevail.
Woodson said the office recommended Red Tail Mountain Ranch be taken off the ag status. The subdivision is located about 15 miles north of Durango, off East Animas Road (County Road 250), and features 35-acre tracts of land that sell for an estimated $500,000.
For years, the Bonds family ran cattle on the property, Woodson said. But site visits by county assessors the past three years found no evidence the land was still being used for grazing, she said. As a result, the office removed ag status for the property.
The property owners, however, challenged the decision in front of the Board of Equalization, providing the board with a new lease between the property owner and the Bonds family, which apparently swayed the decision in their favor, Woodson said.
Geoff Schlittgen, a developer for Red Tail Mountain Ranch, said the Assessor’s Office was wrong: Cattle have used the land the past few years. They have their favorite spots to graze, he said, and are there for only a period of time before moving up to the high country where the Bonds have a permit with the U.S. Forest Service.
“We weren’t pretending to have cows up there,” Schlittgen said. “We have cows up there. ... They just aren’t there 100% of the time.”
Lorene Bonds, whose family runs cattle on the property, when asked if cattle had been on the property the past few years, said: “Our cows did get in there because (Red Tail Mountain Ranch) didn’t fix their fences ... so the cows did use it some. Whether that was supposed to have happened is another question.”
Bonds said her family has signed a lease with Red Tail Mountain Ranch and intends to graze the land.
Woodson said it is important to uphold the integrity of the ag status.
“The process of reclassifying agricultural land is not to boost revenue to the county,” she said. “It is the fair and equitable treatment of agricultural properties in La Plata County.”
Woodson added it is not uncommon for entire subdivisions to have agricultural use, because many subdivisions in the county were agricultural because being platted into a subdivision. But after platting, the agricultural use is usually secondary to the primary purpose, which is residential.
“More and more we are seeing these subdivisions being removed from agricultural classification due to lack of use or owners, who after building, decide they don’t want cattle in the yard,” she said. “If it is your intention to remain classified as agricultural for taxation there must be grazing or growing for a profit, every year, period, no exception.”