Pitkin County commissioners continue mission to uncover a ploy on residential land
ASPEN The Pitkin County commissioners this week continued their mission of closely scrutinizing applications to have land classified as agricultural in nature despite the presence of residential development.The board has been highlighting this issue for months, contesting numerous applications to get land classified as agricultural whenever the commissioners have suspected it actually was a ploy to avoid the higher tax rates paid on residential land.In the end, the board voted to grant the request of landowner Cornelius Dupree II, concerning his land at the base of Mount Sopris near Carbondale, but not without some sharp verbal exchanges with Duprees attorney, Lucas Peck of the firm Brandt & Feigenbaum, P.C.Duprees Sopris Mountain Ranch has been subdivided into lots of 35 acres or more, each with a five-acre building site. But a rule prohibits fences to allow cows to graze freely over range that has supported livestock for decades, so as to maintain the balance of the land as a working ranch, wrote Larry Fite of the county assessors office in a memo.But at some point, according to Fite and testimony before the commissioners acting as the county board of equalization the homeowners decided they did not want cows roaming freely around their homes and relegated them to a fenced area that includes a parcel known as Lot 52, which is 35 acres or so.The assessors office, declaring it to be vacant land in a subdivision, said the land is worth $1.24 million in actual value, with a tax bill of nearly $15,000 in 2007. But Peck, acting for the owner at a tax-abatement hearing, argued that the land is subject to a livestock grazing lease with the well-known Nieslanik family of ranchers, and so should be classified as agricultural, meaning the tax bill would drop to $22.34 a year.Several commissioners balked at the idea, led by Michael Owsley. Commissioners demanded to know how many cattle were grazed on the land, how frequently and for how long, what the amount being paid for the lease is and whether Dupree has a background in agriculture, among other things.I have difficulty allowing that much tax money to go by the board for the sake of a few cows on leased land, Owsley said.I dont think thats relevant, responded Peck at one point, after Commissioner Rachel Richards asked about the cost of the lease. Peck noted that state law requires only that the lessee, in this case John Nieslanik, be a bona fide agricultural operation intending to make money at the business.Owsley recalled that residents of the neighborhood had been agitating to have West Sopris Road paved, at county expense.The relevant fact about that is about wanting county services but not being willing to pay for them, he said, accusing Dupree of trying to avoid his tax liability by subterfuge.Thats patently offensive, Peck responded, saying that Dupree is only following state law. He said the state Legislature wanted to incentivize large landowners to maintain agricultural operations regardless of residential development prospects. [Dupree] is doing exactly what they mean him to do, he said.As for Owsleys remarks, Peck said, I strongly encourage you to take back the idea, a suggestion that went unheeded.With Owsley and fellow Commissioner Dorothea Farris voting no, the board ultimately approved the abatement petition.But they also pledged to take the matter up with state authorities at the first opportunity in an attempt to get the laws changed regarding what Farris termed amenity agriculture or rent-a-cow firstname.lastname@example.org
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