La Plata County has lost a legal battle against a property owner accused of using the agricultural-exempt tax status for its tax break, but not actually using the land for any ranching or farming activities.
Decades ago, the state of Colorado created a tax break for agricultural operators to provide assistance to the people who grow food and, as an added benefit, help preserve the open space that defines the Colorado landscape.
However, it’s a constant effort for county governments to weed out people who declare the agricultural exempt status just for the tax break.
Every two years, the La Plata County Assessor’s Office conducts land valuations, based on field investigations, land sales and other factors.
As part of that process, the Assessor’s Office makes sure those claiming the agricultural tax status are in fact using their land to produce a product on the land and sell it for profit.
If that’s found not to be the case, the Assessor’s Office can delist the property. Landowners then have the opportunity to protest the decision.
Last year, the Assessor’s Office moved to delist a mostly undeveloped 186-acre property on the corner of U.S. Highway 550 and County Road 302, known as Vista Pacifica, about 10 miles south of Durango.
County Assessor Carrie Woodson said previously the property is split into 20 lots for residential development. However, only two lots have homes on them, and the rest of the property is vacant.
The vacant lots, Woodson said, had the ag status, but the Assessor’s Office moved to remove the listing because a herd of sheep grazed on the property only a couple of days out of the year.
“It (agricultural) really is not the primary purpose of that property,” she said at that time. “Based on that information, we felt that use (sheep grazing for a brief time) was incidental to the primary purpose of that property, and our stance was to remove (the ag status).”
The property owner, Randy Wilson, contested the Assessor’s Office, appealing to the state of Colorado’s Board of Assessment Appeals.
The board heard arguments in August and issued a decision last week in favor of Wilson, saying the presented evidence supports the claim the land is being used as a farm and ranch.
The board said the property contains a pasture, shop buildings, fuel tanks and a pond used to water livestock. The board also said there was evidence cattle are contained in fences on the property, and an irrigation ditch is in use.
The board said evidence was presented that 1,387 sheep grazed on the property for three days in 2018. Previous reports have said the sheep belong to Ignacio rancher J. Paul Brown.
The board also said the property was used to produce 118 bales of hay that were sold in 2019. It appears Wilson has water rights that were used to irrigate the property for hay and winter wheat, the board wrote.
“In sum, the subject property meets both the definition of a ‘farm’ and a ‘ranch,’” the board wrote in its decision. “Therefore, it is appropriate that the subject receive agricultural classification for tax year 2019.”
The Assessor’s Office was ordered to change Wilson’s land classification back to agricultural.
“We are disappointed and will be reviewing the ruling and weighing our options on moving forward,” Woodson wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
Because of the agricultural status, Wilson pays about $2,500 in property taxes, Woodson said previously providing a rough estimate. Had the county prevailed, Wilson would have paid about $8,100 a year.