County, Emma Farms come to compromise on ‘rent-a-cow’ issue |

County, Emma Farms come to compromise on ‘rent-a-cow’ issue

Charles Agar
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN Pitkin County commissioners and Emma Farms owner Tom Waldeck reached a compromise Wednesday in an ongoing debate over agricultural tax designation and “rent-a-cow ranching.”Waldeck’s 136 acres straddle Pitkin and Eagle counties, and he would like to continue commercial agriculture on the property, but he said he can only do so if he is taxed as an agricultural property.The county designates the land use of a property – whether residential or commercial – and the state determines tax classification based on that use. Unless the board grants commercial, Waldeck must pay high residential taxes.Waldeck is putting more than half the property under a conservation easement to preserve the land in perpetuity, and will save two historic homes. As a result, commissioners granted him the right to build a new home on one 35-acre parcel, but when he does, the land will be taxed as a residence.”We want to protect agricultural land and open space,” Commissioner Dorothea Farris said. “But it’s the violators that make you gun-shy.”

“Rent-a-cow ranchers” are owners of luxury homes who keep a small number of animals or cut hay on a corner of large parcels to take advantage of low commercial agriculture taxes. The most controversial case was in 2002, when the county granted actress Goldie Hawn agricultural designation for her second home in Old Snowmass.Mick Ireland, who celebrated his last day as commissioner at Wednesday’s meeting in Aspen, said he’s been fighting it for years and simply wants tax-dodging rent-a-cow ranchers with high-end residential properties to pay their share.The veteran commissioner said he’s heard a lot of passionate pleas to partition and build a second space with the intent of housing an ailing mother, for example. But as soon as the deal is done, out come the “for sale” signs.”They must have an intent to make a profit,” Ireland said. He supports small-scale farming – landowners can do what they like with their property – but he wouldn’t call many a “farm” just as he wouldn’t call a lemonade stand a commercial business.”When the deal is done, he can sell those parcels,” Ireland said. The next owners, no matter their plan, would inherit a “no-tax” situation. Ireland called that unfair.

Waldeck insists he intends to continue farming and he is frustrated that commissioners do not trust nor support that intent.Commissioner Patti Clapper asked the board to revisit the complicated multicounty proposal after an August decision denied Waldeck agricultural use.”The issue was we really didn’t have the opportunity to discuss it,” Clapper said, and she wants to look at the case again with an eye to consistency and fairness.Clapper admitted that many people abuse the system but asked, “How do we incentivize and encourage people to maintain historic agricultural activity if we don’t provide them with agricultural tax classification?”On Wednesday, commissioners granted Waldeck 15 years of vested rights, meaning he can continue farming as he has been for that period. He has been granted commercial agricultural use (thus lower taxes) on one historic agricultural property. On the parcel where he has the right to build, he’s been granted commercial agricultural use up until the moment he files to build – at which time he’ll pay high residential rates.

“I could have been more pleased,” Waldeck said. But he is happy he can continue farming in the coming years.”The BOCC decided today they aren’t going to follow their new regs,” Waldeck said. Instead of assessing the use of the land after making a site visit and an assessment, community development will call Waldeck’s 35-acre parcel residential as soon as he submits a building permit. He said that is unfair and outside of the regulation.While he is satisfied with the compromise, Waldeck said the commissioners are going against their pledge to preserve area ranches and historical properties by punishing would-be farmers.”It’s a reasonable compromise for us. We can work around it,” he said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is

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