Vail Valley Voices: Tax reform can save farmlands
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –Let’s be realistic. Land trusts will save a few iconic pieces of land from develop-ment, but if anyone thinks they are going to save agriculture in the West, they are dreaming.
We will be very lucky if 1 percent or 2 percent of lands presently in agriculture can be saved in this manner. I am not against land trusts – they are very useful in setting aside critical pieces of land, but if we want to maintain a balance between our urban areas and those lands that feed our cities and towns, we need to give agricultural lands their proper due before it’s too late. Land trusts are far too costly and politically contentious where public funds are involved in the purchase.
One of the biggest problems in saving ranchlands in the West, and Eagle Coun-ty, is the inheritance tax. This tax, when applied to land, is based on anticipation and the presumption that every ranch-er wants to get out of ranching and “cash in” on development.
Let me explain.
Most other inheritance taxes are based on the actual value of the proper-ty at the time of the owner’s death. But with land, the county, state and federal appraisers look at the surrounding land uses and see where a developer has turned a million- dollar piece of ranch property into a $ 50 million piece of property when it goes into subdivision development.
This is usually what the appraiser uses to determine the value of the ranch for inheritance tax purposes.
How can a rancher, who is not in a par-ticularly profitable business, find the money to pay the 40 percent inheritance tax on this basis? He can’t, so his family cannot stay in ranching no matter how much it might want to. It has to sell.
How is ” highest and best use” deter-mined? Is it the best use or the most profitable use? I, for one, think ” highest and best use” is agriculture on our irri-gated pasture lands. The reasoning is obvious. We will need more and more agricultural land, not less, to feed a grow-ing population. Increasing transporta-tion costs are going to result in decreased imports of food products, so passing “the food buck” to the rest of the world isn’t going to work. Many nations already depend on us to supplement their food supply, not the other way around. We need to save our agricultural lands. Ranchers in this county cannot raise cows without the federal lands and the private- land hay meadows that provide winter feed for their herds.
The solution is simple. The appraisers for various government entities should be required to value the land according to its present use, not its potential use. Other taxes can be applied when the land is actually converted to cover the cost of the change in land use but not before.
In short, it’s a win- win approach that looks to the public good and not to the continued forced conversion of agricul-tural lands into developments. And the rancher still has the option to sell, but he may not have to.
Roger C. Brown is a Gypsum resident.