Friday, September 7, 2018

Taxing the trees on your land

"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree."

In some strange perversion, those immortal words from Joyce Kilmer have taken on another meaning. They have become a battle cry for some assessors in New York. In their version the word "poem" is replaced with "taxable asset" as some have taken advantage of state law to tax property owners for the trees on their property.

Under this practice, tax assessors, with guidance from the state’s Office of Real Property Tax Services, analyze woodlots and forests to determine the market value of the timber were the land to be logged. This value is then applied to the assessment the same way that a capital item like a house would be. It can now be said quite literally that many municipalities are "sticking" it to landowners by considering a naturally-occurring tree a man-induced investment.

This means of taxation has been at the disposal of municipalities for decades but it was rarely if ever used for two primary hurdles that have gradually lessened over time.

First of all, assessors did not traditionally possess the skill sets necessary for valuing timber.

This is now a moot point as the Internet allows everyone to dabble in sciences that they never knew before. A little bit of research and some backing from accredited sources can make everyone – at least in their eyes - an expert on any given subject. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance aids in the cause by providing online price charts and methods for determining stumpage values and timber merchantability.  

The second impediment -- political incorrectness of these taxes – has taken a dive over time.

Just a few decades ago the thought of taxing trees would have been met with a huge revolt. Back then, many families owned small farms that had woodlots. But agriculture has changed; many farms have gone by the wayside while others devoured smaller properties becoming larger, consolidated operations. This occurred at the same time that many people opted instead for the woodless suburban way of life or postage-stamp lots. Thus woodlots and forests have become larger in scale while owned by less people. This offers fewer voices of dissent by placing the tax burden on the few through the Tree Tax rather than the many with an across-the-board tax increase. These municipalities don’t mind taking heat from a few farmers or absentee property owners (like owners of hunting camps) if they can keep the voting masses silent.

Unfortunately, it’s the very people shouldering this increased burden (the cash-strapped farmers and the blue collar sportsmen) who can least afford it. They are paying through the nose. The current market value of timber is fairly high thanks to the huge demand for wood and pulp in the global marketplace. In some areas where it is now being used, the Tree Tax has resulted in rural property owners’ tax bills doubling.

I am a victim of this. I own a chunk of forest in Allegany County that was re-assessed last year. The assessor said the market value doubled. So, I filed a grievance and met with the assessment board of review, making, what I thought, was a compelling case: the town’s road to my property is seasonal and becomes a state-run snowmobile trail (cutting my access down by a third of the year); there are no structures on the land; and it is a mile and a half either direction from any utilities. I should have known something was amiss when each member of the board asked me, multiple times, “have you ever logged the property?” (I haven’t). Of course, I received a letter in the mail weeks later that my grievance was denied.  

This style of property valuation leaves in its wake an ethical debate. One cannot help but wonder how government can tax what Mother Nature has wrought. Most landowners do not harvest timber off their properties…their trees are there not for their bounty but for the bounty of what the Creator had intended for all living creatures. Leave it to New York State to find a way to place a value on the very existence of nature itself and reap something from the course of life.

It’s an intrinsically evil form of Big Government that sounds fictional but may one day come to a forest near you….a forest that might no longer stand if the landowner is forced to clear cut so he is not bankrupted by taxes.  

From the 10 September 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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