Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Vilified Ag-Land Tax Break, and Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

There has been a fair amount of media coverage in Denver recently about Colorado's lenient agricultural-land tax breaks. The articles focus on how this policy is being abused (generally by the super-rich) and, of course, the overall message is pretty harsh. For example, take a moment and read today's article in the Denver Post about tremendous property tax savings in the posh Cherry Hills Village area.

To be sure, it's unfair to grant millionaires tens of thousands of dollars in tax breaks for "agricultural" activities that appear to be purely window-dressing. However, in the justifiable uproar over the abuses, we risk losing a valuable opportunity for urban sustainability. In an effort to prevent the manipulation that is currently happening, some legislators want to impose a minimum land size (like 20 acres) in order to qualify for the ag-land designation.

The Post article requested feedback from readers, and I sent them this letter:

I understand that the abuses of the ag-land designation by the super-rich are troublesome. However, as we look at reforming the law, I will be advocating for tighter guidelines around how the land is truly being used -- NOT a minimum space requirement. Urban agriculture is growing rapidly in Denver, and there are many reasons to believe that more food production (both plant- and animal-based) within cities is one of the keys to a sustainable and healthy future for urban residents.

Around the world, more people now live in cities than live in rural areas. We can no longer afford to think of food production as something that happens "out there" -- for example, on spaces that are at least 20 acres. We need to start producing more of what we eat right where we live, and families (or neighborhood groups working together) can produce a surprising amount of vegetables, fruit, milk, eggs, grains, and/or meat on a small urban space.

Right now most of the regulations in urban areas discourage sustainable food production in favor of outdated wastefulness (i.e. trying to maintain a a perfect lawn in an arid climate). I believe that we should be incentivizing people to use their resources -- like water and land -- for growing or raising food, and tax law is one way to do that. The public revenues lost by giving tax breaks to true agricultural ventures, no matter the size of the land, will be more than made up for through the environmental, food safety, and public health savings that a sustainable food system would generate.

I would ask that our legislators' time be spent coming up with ways to tighten the use requirements for this designation. Grazing a couple of llamas twice a year is a questionable qualification for the tax break. However, don't throw the baby out with the bath water -- let's support our urban agriculture pioneers in building the food systems of the future.

Sundari Kraft

What do you think? Can we leverage ag-land designations to actually promote urban agriculture, or is this tax break too often abused to be allowed to continue? Should urban farmers even have the option of receiving tax savings for using city land for food production? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and -- even better -- send them to The Denver Post at


Brenda said...

This appears to be a golden moment to ride the wave and impact change. With more and more homeowners converting their water guzzling grass lawns into food producing plots, it is a prime time to contest one's property tax bill on the basis of precedent and seek an ag designation for urban lots.
I honestly think we should have a tighter strategy around the Ag designation, not because of the noted individuals who are abusing it's current weakness, really they are acting out of opportunity. I feel that having a well thought-out strategy on designating agricultural land will only strengthen our state's position and function as an ag state.

As for the Cherry Hills homes, one simple change would be to remove the land where the house sits from the Ag designation. A homestead is a homestead is a homestead - residential. Seems simple enough.

Sundari said...

Well said, Brenda!