LAWRENCE COUNTY Farmer seeks special tax plan

County commissioners said they would consider delaying reassessment if there is too much confusion.
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Nancy Hutchison is worried about the future of her farmland.
Hutchison, of Wilmington Township, asked county commissioners Tuesday to consider giving preferential treatment to agricultural land when they certify land values under the countywide reassessment later this year.
"I'm suggesting a more equitable taxation for farmland," she said. "We feel some accommodation should be made for farmers."
Agricultural land does qualify for the state's Clean and Green program, which gives farmland a lower assessed value in counties that have recently undergone reassessment, but Hutchison said she's not interested in that program.
She said the program promotes an "indebtedness" for farmers. If they develop the land, they must pay back taxes at the higher, fair market value for the previous seven years.
"Many of these farmers, especially the Amish, do not comprehend indebtedness," she said.
Hutchison said she wants to the county set its own preferential value for farmland that wouldn't penalize farmer if they decide to develop.
Response: County Assessor Mary Bullano said it is possible for the county to set its own rate for farmland, but state officials don't encourage it.
"Then you have to defend your values. If anybody took you to court, you would have to explain them [values]," she said.
Clean and Green experts don't agree with Hutchison's notion of indebtedness, saying most developers buying farmland will likely pay the back taxes as part of any land deal.
The state program also has provisions for those who want to give small parcels of land to family members to build houses, said Bill Chess of the Pennsylvania State University Extension Office in Lawrence County.
Up to two acres can be taken away from the property each year without violating the Clean and Green Act and forcing the main property owner to pay back taxes, he said.
There are also provisions excluding the payment of back taxes if land is divided into less than 10 acres -- the minimal amount needed to be in the program -- for a person's heirs after death, Chess said.
Some, however, still say they don't understand reassessment or Clean and Green.
James Benson of Pulaski asked county commissioners to hold off on certifying the new values because there is too much confusion.
County commissioners assured Benson they want to make sure all property owners have a chance to appeal their newly determined property values if they feel they are unfair.
Delay a problem: Commissioners Brian Burick and Roger DeCarbo said they would even consider delaying reassessment by a year to ensure everything is correct. Commissioner Ed Fosnaught was not at Tuesday's meeting.
Commissioners, however, would have to get a court order allowing reassessment to be delayed. In 1998, commissioners signed a consent decree with the city of New Castle, which states reassessment must be done by 2003.
The city had threatened a lawsuit to force reassessment because it contended city residents were paying an unfair share of county taxes.
New Castle Solicitor James Manolis said city council would have to look at the reasons behind any request for an extension before agreeing to one.

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