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Second chances

SoVaNow.com / August 09, 2018
It was clear we were off to the races Monday night at the monthly Halifax County Board of Supervisors meeting when a local farmer rose from his seat to argue that Halifax County needs Agricultural and Forestal Districts more than ever because things are so bad for producers right now. “The price of beans went down 20 percent last month,” he said. Presumably he was referring to soybeans. What could cause the price of soybeans to drop 20 percent in a month? Hmm.

There are some things, clearly, that I need to let go of — like the fact rural communities around the country overwhelmingly backed a candidate for president who, surprise surprise, has revealed himself in office to be totally out of his depth in a staggering number of ways. The list includes starting trade wars that are highly unlikely to achieve any lasting good for America. One thing Trump’s trade wars have done, however, is to expose soybean growers and other farm producers to massive blowback from our trading partners in the form of retaliatory tariffs on ag products. Farmers are getting burned by this nonsense, and it’s not in Halifax County’s power to soften the impact. But that’s all I’m going to say today on this particular subject. Let’s return to our regularly scheduled local programming.

Halifax County has a problem: a poorly-designed and -implemented program to boost one of our most important industries has reached the end of its rope, and the beneficiaries want the Board of Supervisors to come up with something else in its place. We’re talking, of course, about Ag Forestal Districts (AFDs), which were implemented in 2009 and lasted a decade until the Board of Supervisors effectively defunded the program this year. (By the ordinance, AFDs have a 10-year shelf life and must be renewed after such time to continue.) The stated objectives of AFDs notwithstanding, it’s become pretty hard to defend the program’s outcomes. AFDs aren’t outrageously costly (about $200,000 annually, depending on a number of factors that vary from year to year) but that’s only because so few people have been allowed to take part (applications to the program were capped in 2012, after it became clear that the costs would spiral out of control if everyone who qualified to join an AFD was allowed to do so). The inequities here are obvious and impossible to defend, which of course hasn’t stopped lots of folks in the local farm community from trying.

How do AFDs work? Essentially, members of these ag districts — which must be 200 acres or larger — receive a break on their real estate taxes because their land is taxed differently from that of the average landowner. Most any owner of real property will be familiar with tax assessments: you get a notice from the Commissioner of Revenue telling you what your home or farm or business site is worth, and you pay taxes based on that assessed value. The figure from the Commissioner’s Office represents the best estimate of what any property will fetch on the open market — based somewhat on guessestimates, of course, but Mr. Taxman has to work with something. The tax assessment process is fairly complicated and it can definitely be controversial, but the idea behind it is straightforward: you pay taxes on property based on its market value. Simple enough.

AFDs (at least in Halifax County) offer a tax break to growers by establishing a different system for assessing the value of open land tracts — based on their productive use, i.e., ability to generate income, rather than the market price. The latter is typically greater than the former, so voila — farmers have been paying comparatively low taxes on their large land holdings. (The 200-acre threshold for an AFD can be satisfied by a single farm or a group of farms, although in the case of the latter the farm tracts must be contiguous.) While taxing farmland based on income generated may be sound in concept, Halifax County hasn’t handled the idea very well in practice. Cost and equity concerns aside, the single biggest problem with AFDs is that many of the program’s beneficiaries aren’t involved with farming in any meaningful way whatsoever. The move by AFD participants to sell their large and lightly-used land tracts to solar farm developers underscores this fact.

So: a somewhat expensive program that is accessible to some but not others and may or may not advance its stated aims (to grow the local farm and timber economy) is coming to an end. What now? That was the question looming over the Board of Supervisors’ public hearing on Monday night, and many of our local ag producers came forth with a suggestion: land use taxation. How would this differ from AFDs? Good question. Like AFDs, a system of land use taxation sets the tax value of farm and timber properties based on their productive use (the income thing again) rather than perceived market value. Under a land use system, however, only bona fide producers of farm and timber commodities would be allowed to take part: some of the major participants in AFDs who are FINOs (Farmers In Name Only) would be cast out into the cold. Or so they say. While this seems like a much fairer system, it also sounds more complicated and costlier to administer, and then there’s the question of the lost tax revenue to the county. How do you provide a meaningful subsidy to a bigger pool of participants — large growers, small growers, growers in between — without the cost of the program zooming through the roof?

Perhaps the best way to view land use taxation is to compare it to a business enterprise zone: a system of uniform tax breaks and subsides to encourage business development (large and small) by any qualifying party. If the concept is fair for one component of the local economy, it should be fair for all. Yet one of the ironies of Monday’s public hearing was listening to one farmer after another trash the Industrial Development Authority (not entirely unreasonably, mind you, albeit perhaps too harshly) as a big fat disappointing waste of money. Enterprise zones, just one tool in the IDA’s toolkit, have hardly lit the county’s business sector on fire, which makes you wonder how significant these tax breaks really are to the companies that presumably would profit from their use. Too small to matter? Might not the same be true for farmers, too?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The county has agreed to commission a study, which is a good first step for finding out some answers. In theory, Halifax County should offer land use taxation, as a rural county with a compelling need to grow and support the local farm economy. But there are a lot of compelling needs out there. Going forward with land use taxation means that someone else will inevitably have to pick up the cost of the tax revenues foresworn from the farm. In a world of competing interests, the first job of land use proponents will to demonstrate the value of the system they propose to create. As we’ve seen before with AFDs, that doesn’t always work out so well. Will the second time be the charm?

***

To our west, the Pittsylvania County Planning Commission met Tuesday night to consider a request by Walter and Alice Coles to rezone 24 acres of their land from residential to agricultural. (You can read the results of that meeting here.) Walter Coles is founder and president of Virginia Uranium, Inc., which has long sought to mine uranium at the Coles Hill farm near Chatham. While mining is banned in residential zones, it is allowed in areas zoned for agriculture, with the stipulation that the operation must first obtain a special exception permit. It’s not hard to see what’s happening here. After a long period of dormancy, uranium mining has returned as a dire threat to Southside Virginia.

This is all tied into the Supreme Court’s decision to review the legality of Virginia’s ban on uranium mining. The justices are set to hear arguments in October in a lawsuit that Virginia Uranium brought to overturn the state moratorium. At issue is whether Virginia has exceeded its regulatory authority in banning mining for the past four decades. VUI’s lawsuit has been rejected twice at the district and appellate levels of the federal court system, but four justices on the Supreme Court — the threshold for granting a writ of certiorari, or review — have deemed that the lawsuit raises significant legal questions that could result in the lower court decisions being overruled.

Which raises the question: What happens if the State of Virginia loses at the high court? If it happens, regulation of uranium mining will continue, but instead of the State of Virginia bottling up the entire enterprise, the decision on whether to green-light the mining project will shift to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was strongly pro-industry even before the Trump Administration took over. I have no doubt that the NRC is temperamentally inclined to approve Virginia Uranium’s application, notwithstanding the hellstorm that will surely arise not only in Southside Virginia but in Hampton Roads, Charlottesville-Orange County and other communities were the prospect of uranium mining inspires fear and loathing.

Another factor to consider: with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court currently has only eight members pending the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pick to fill the vacant seat. You can never be too sure about how justices will rule on a case before they announce their decisions, but it’s hardly a stretch to think that the four members of the court who agreed to grant the review of Virginia Uranium’s lawsuit might come from the court’s conservative bloc. Roughly speaking, there’s a 4-4 split on the Supreme Court with Kavanaugh waiting in the wings. There’s also a chance, however slim, the Virginia Uranium lawsuit could be heard before Kavanaugh is seated, and a chance, perhaps also slim, that the case could end in a 4-4 tie, in which case the lower court decision in favor of the State of Virginia would stand. Too much to ask for? Let’s hope not.





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