Pennington Co. reverses minimum acreage requirement for rural property owners
for Rapid City Journal
Following months of backlash from rural property owners, Pennington County Commissioners have voted to restore the original criteria of a tax break for farmers and ranchers.
In a 3-2 vote Tuesday, the commissioners reversed a decision it made in May that increased the minimum acreage for classifying a property in Pennington County as agriculture from 40 acres to 160 acres.
The classification saves agricultural producers thousands of dollars each year, but the commissioners feared that non-producers were exploiting its criteria to reduce their tax bills.
But that tightening of criteria spurred an angry response from rural property owners, particularly those with hobby-sized farms. Aggrieved property owners poured into subsequent county meetings, claiming that they have legitimate farm operations and that their taxes could increase by as much as 10 times.
Lyndell Petersen, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday that he voted in favor of the reversion because he sympathized with those concerns.
Petersen voted against the board’s original decision in May to change the minimum-acreage requirement. He said he believed that relatively few people were exploiting the classification.
“No one has put a number on it,” he said. “I would say it’s probably less than 10 percent.”
In order to address those concerns, he said, the county was planning to tighten the classification criteria in different ways.
Petersen said that the commissioners would likely vote in November on a change to county policy that would more clearly define how forestry is regarded as “principal use” under the classification. One of the principal motivations for the vote in May was that people with trees on their property were claiming they had a forestry operation and therefore were entitled to the classification.
In addition, Petersen said the county planned to lobby the Legislature for general changes to state law regarding the classification. Petersen said the county may propose changing the income criteria to state that property owners had to generate more than $1,000 of their income from agriculture rather than a third of their income. The county also wanted rural property owners to be able to add together the acreage of multiple, disconnected farm properties in a county to meet the minimum acreage threshold.
Commissioner Ron Buskerud, who voted in favor of the May decision and voted against reversing it, said he was disappointed by the board’s decision.
“I guess I have always believed that’s the right number,” he said. “I hated to see it go back.”
Buskerud said that he was sympathetic to the argument that too many legitimate farmers could be unfairly impacted by the change. At the same time, he said he was concerned that those who are exploiting the classification might be able to continue.
While he was encouraged that rural property owners and several of his fellow commissioners were pushing strongly for legislative changes, he worried the motivation to make those changes would now diminish.
“Now that we went back to 40, I’m not sure if the impetus to make changes is going to be there anymore,” he said.
–reprinted with permission from Rapid City Journal