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Ag District interest may be tied to property revaluations in northern Jefferson County

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The Jefferson County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board approved applications from 13 property owners who want their land included in one of the county’s three agricultural districts Tuesday night.

The 13 applications represent 19 parcels of land almost entirely located in the northern part of the county, according to E. Hartley Bonisteel, the Planning Department official managing the program.

Only one piece of property is in southern Jefferson County.

Real Property Director Paul E. Warneck, who attended the meeting, said that property revaluations that went into effect in March in the towns of Lyme and Cape Vincent may be the motivating factor behind the interest in the program.

Inclusion in an agricultural district provides a variety of protections to property owners, including safeguards against nuisance complaints and mandates placed on state agencies to avoid or minimize adverse impacts on farmland.

But one of the most important benefits of the inclusion of a piece of property in a agricultural district is the eligibility to receive real property assessments based on the agricultural production capacity of the land rather than on its development value.

Farmers receiving agricultural assessments collectively save more than $70 million annually, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

To apply for an agricultural assessment, a landowner has two options: have his or her land approved for inclusion in an agricultural district or secure an individual commitment for the land.

Once one of these two processes is completed, the landowner must then obtain a survey of the types of soil contained on the land from the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District and attach that survey to an application form submitted to the town assessor.

There are also income requirements for the land.

The annual gross sales of agricultural products must average $10,000 or more for at least the preceding two years before an application is approved, according to the New York state Department of Taxation and Finance.

But even small tracts of land may be eligible if they are leased to a larger operation. The income of the larger operation can be used to meet the eligibility requirements, according to Mr. Warneck.

Agricultural assessments have become more popular in recent years, he said.

Four hundred nine agricultural exemptions were filed in 2008. That number has climbed steadily in the ensuing years.

Five hundred thirty-nine exemptions were filed in 2009; 618 in 2010; 778 in 2011 and 847 in 2012.

That number jumped to 1,229 in 2013.

There were no agricultural exemptions filed in the towns of Lyme or Cape Vincent in 2012, but 66 and 182 filed respectively this year.

“There’s no denying there’s more exemptions than ever before,” Mr. Warneck said. “They’re tied to revaluation and increasing value of farmland in the county.”

Though inclusion in an agricultural district provides eligibility for agricultural assessments, the two programs are separate and distinct, Mr. Warneck said.

For instance, there is no penalty for withdrawing a parcel from an agricultural district but there is a penalty for removing a parcel from agricultural production once a landowner receives an agricultural exemption from the property tax rate.

The state Legislature recently passed a bill that will cap agricultural assessment increases at 2 percent a year.

The assessment increases were previously capped at 10 percent.

Rising corn and soybean prices have increased the valuation of agricultural land, making it difficult for some farmers to maintain their operations relative to their income and expenses.

But as some municipalities have raised their regular assessments, the agricultural assessments have become more attractive, Mr. Warneck said.

Securing an agricultural assessment through an individual commitment does not afford the kind of protections that inclusion in an agricultural district does.

As an example, in some cases, inclusion in an agricultural district can allow property owners to install small wind turbines on their property even if the local municipality has outlawed the practice, Ms. Bonisteel said.

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