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Farmers plead case for keeping ag districts / August 09, 2018
Farm and timber producers pleaded with the Halifax County Board of Supervisors Monday night to extend the county’s Agricultural and Forestal Districts (AFDs) at least until the board can come up with a replacement for the tax-advantaged farm districts.

An outpouring of farmers prompted supervisors to hold off action on repealing the county’s ordinance that established the ag-forestal districts. However, supervisors have previously signaled that the program will cease at the end of the year, and have already struck funding for it from this year’s county budget.

Several members of the farm community who spoke Monday night suggested that the supervisors try a different approach to alleviate the property tax burden on farmers — land use taxation, which is similar to AFDs but is more tightly limited to landowners who are active farmers and timber producers.

Nelson Link, who farms with members of his family, pointed out that the county’s cost for the program — $218,000 in deferred tax revenue in the past year — is just a drop in the bucket in the context of the county’s $93 million budget.

“It’s less than one quarter of one percent of the overall budget,” he argued, as he showed off a graph demonstrating how county government spends its money.

He added that new crops and products are being developed which may attract more farmers in Halifax County — citing winery and industrial hemp operations — and continuing AFDs would encourage the trend.

Weldon Anderson, a fifth generation Nathalie farmer, also spoke up for continuing the AFDs. “I think we ought to leave the system just like we’ve got it.” He argued that if the Board wants to save money, it should target the Industrial Development Authority, which he accused of wasting money on business prospects that fail to materialize. “Mr. Leonard [IDA director Matt Leonard] made quite a living on prospects because that’s all he’s ever had,” said Anderson.

The money dedicated to FDs is on par with what the county pays to the county administrator, superintendent of schools and the IDA director, while “farmers are having a hard time making a living,” Anderson said.

Another family farmer in the Nathalie area, Ronnie Waller, told supervisors that he loves farming, but it’s not a life for everyone.

“We have a lot of downsides and a lot of upsides. If it were easy everybody would want to do it,” he said.

Waller said he is “a little leery” about the idea of discontinuing AFDs “before we have something else” and pointed out that farm production helps the county’s economy without requiring much in return in the way of public services such as policing, schools or roads.

By contrast, Waller said, a nearby farm was recently sold and subdivided into 26 housing tracts, all of which will add to the demand for schooling, public safety and other services.

Meantime, “that land has been lost to farming forever,” he said.

Said another speaker: “Remember, three times a day you need to thank the farmer for what you eat. It doesn’t just come from the grocery store.”

After listening to the comments, ED-6 supervisor Stanley Brandon said he agreed “wholeheartedly with a lot of the comments tonight” and said the board should get more information about land use taxation as a possible alternative to AFDs before doing anything.

“I’m glad that we’re not at the crossroads in repealing AFDs,” he said.

However, Board Chairman Dennis Witt noted that supervisors were not planning to vote on the elimination of the AFD ordinance during Monday night’s meeting. But Witt also observed that the ordinance which created the special districts was enacted in 2009, and it called for the program to expire after 10 years, on Dec. 31, unless AFDs were reauthorized.

Witt also pointed out that the stated cost of the program — around $220,000 — would be much greater if the county had not capped applications in 2012 to halt the program’s growth. “It [the true cost] is far greater than $200,000. If you keep it, you have to open it up to everyone,” he said.

In the meantime, Witt has appointed an ad hoc committee to begin studying the implementation of a land use program. “We have a good committee that will look at it. Several of you have said ‘don’t take it away unless you have something to put in its place.’ The committee has a lot of work to do.”

In contrast to AFDs — which by code must consist of 200 acres or more, either single farms or a grouping of contiguous farms — land use taxation can apply to farm tracts as small as five acres. Land use taxation is widely used by Virginia counties, although the scope of the local programs can vary widely. Generally, the system provides farm producers with a lower tax assessment on their land, based on the productive farm value, rather than the market value, which is generally higher.

In other business Monday night:

» Board members approved amendments to the permit for Foxhound Solar LLC’s solar generation facility on 1,479 acres on Green Valley and Mt. Laurel Road. The amendments require that the telephone number for the company be prominently displayed, should residents need more information about the solar farm.

» Supervisors also continued their support for running municipal water to the county event center (fairground property) after being advised that the $83,500 cost can be paid for out of proceeds from the sale of the timber that was cut from Plywood Trail to the exhibition hall. The water line would travel along Plywood Trail to the gate of the center, and on to the exhibit hall at the fairgrounds. The line would not serve individual structures such as the animal barn nor would it extend to campsites on the property.

» Petrina Carter, the new CEO of Tri-County Community Center, spoke to the board about the many programs the agency offers: Head Start, home weatherization, sexual abuse training, free tax assistance for the elderly and low-income residents and a community cannery. She also spoke about the agency’s interest in purchasing the former Cluster Springs Early Learning Center, which the school board has returned to county as surplus property.

She pointed out that if Tri-County could purchase the building, it would allow the agency to bring together many functions under one roof, enabling it to offer more help to clients.

Currently the Head Start program is run out of the agency’s Riverdale home, and in Halifax at the Mary Bethune Complex and at Beth Car Baptist Church and in South Boston. She said the Head Start center located at Sydnor Jennings Elementary School would remain there since it is located in a very rural area, away from the county’s population centers.

Members of the ad hoc committee working on the disposal of the Early Learning Center include Garland Ricketts, Chris Hudson and Kristy Johnson.

» The Board approved a $295,000 loan moral obligation which will be used to support sewer service for residents of the Town of Virgilina.

» Members also approved a resolution seeking Smart Scale funding from VDOT to support improvements to US 58 and State Route 751 to correct hazards on Route 751 as well as its widening and paving.

» Supervisors delayed taking any action on reviewing architectural, engineering or planning services for the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.

» Witt named an ad hoc committee comprised of Bryant Claiborne, Matt Leonard, Brian Burton, George Leonard, Tom Raab, Carl Espy and Sleeper to develop tax incentives for residential and commercial builders which several developers had earlier ask the county to consider.

The Board also approved naming Sleeper to serve on several boards and commissions.

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