Pitkin County: request for tax refund ‘a sham’ | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County: request for tax refund ‘a sham’

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Pitkin County commissioners last week defiantly declared that some large landowners use small-scale agricultural production to avoid paying property taxes, which one commissioner termed “a sham.”

That means that some time in July the commissioners, acting as the Board of Equalization, will once again be asked to consider the very same case that prompted last week’s unhappiness ” the case of the Majestic Properties LLC of Louisiana, which owns a 35-acre hunk of land in the Chaparral subdivision in Woody Creek, formerly known as the Braun Ranch.

The commissioners rejected the May 14 request by Majestic owners’ for a tax refund from the 2005 and 2006 tax year, which would have sharply reduced the property owner’s tax bills for those years.

According to a letter from Larry Fite, chief appraiser for the Pitkin County Assessor, “The actual value [of the land] will be changed from a vacant land value of $3.9 million to an agricultural value of $7,900 with a reduction in taxes from $29, 419.59 to $59.56 for 2005, and from $30,923.80 to $62.60 for 2006.”

In 2005, Fite said, the entire 553-acre Chaparral property was rezoned from agricultural to vacant but unimproved, because “it didn’t seem to meet the criteria of agricultural land.”

But, according to documents provided by Fite, the land was “irrigated and hayed for a profit” from 2003 through 2006, and produced $435 worth of hay last year against expenses of more than $34,000.

It is the money made from the hay that justifies an “agricultural” designation, according to state law. Fite told the board, because, “You just have to show you’re operating with the intent of making a profit,” whether profit is realized or not.

“So how is it conceivable that, with the sale of $435 worth of hay, and expenses of $34,000, how it is conceivable that they will someday make a profit?” demanded Commissioner Michael Owsley. “It seems to me that there is no hope of making a profit, and this is just a sham process.”

Fite noted that the figures provided by the landowners are from the owners’ early tenure on the land, and that their efforts to make money on hay are viewed under the law as evidence of “long-term plans” for a profitable operation.

“I just don’t see that happening,” Owsley said. “This is a sham … perpetrated on the commissioners and every citizen in Pitkin County,” because it takes property off the tax rolls at a time when the county is facing mounting urbanization and rising costs.

Commissioner Dorothea Farris, seeming to be in agreement with Owsley, noted that the Majestic application for agricultural designation includes $1,200 in tax preparation costs as “expenses” in the agricultural operation, and quipped, “Perhaps this is why people say, ‘We really live well in Pitkin County and have really low taxes.'”

She moved to pull the Majestic tax abatement request from the, “consent section of the board’s meeting agenda. Had it stayed on the consent agenda, along with another tax abatement request, it would have been approved with all the other items on that part of the agenda.

“I don’t think that is the formal denial of the abatement,” Fite said of the commission’s action. “I think that is the formal denial of the assessor’s recommendation.” Fite had recommended approval of the abatement, based on several factors.

That means the matter now goes to the Pitkin County Board of Equalization for an appeal.

That board, however, is made up of the same five members who sit on the Board of County Commissioners, some of whom already spoke out against the Majestic request at the May 14 meeting. The sole dissenting vote came from Commissioner Patti Clapper.

Asked whether the Majestic property owners can expect the same kind of reception at the Board of Equalization, Fite replied, “I can’t say that that’s a predetermined outcome.”

If the tax abatement request is turned down by the Board of Equalization, the property owners have three options ” appeal to the state-level Board of Assessment Appeal in Denver or Grand Junction; take the matter to district court; or submit to binding arbitration.