University of Vermont AAHS

Lester v. Grant County Assessor

 

Oregon Tax Court
2001 WL 1012758
August 3, 2001

Summary of Opinion

Plaintiff Lester owned about 1,000 acres for which he wished to be given a farm use assessment for taxation purposes, which would have resulted in a significant tax savings. The defendant county assessor denied the farm use assessment on the ground that the agricultural use of the land was not sufficiently intensive. The acreage in questions was not used continuously for agricultural purposes but only occasionally to provide outdoor therapy for horses that were boarded and trained in confinement on other property owned by the plaintiff. The plaintiff brought this lawsuit to review the decision of the county tax assessor.

The Oregon Tax Court agreed with the assessor that the agricultural use of the property in question was not sufficiently intensive to qualify for farm use assessment. Therefore, plaintiff had to pay property taxes on the land at the market value rate.

Text of Opinion

Plaintiffs have appealed the disqualification, for the 2000-01 tax year, of property identified by Account No. 4903 from special assessment as lands in farm use. The property is more than a thousand acres in area. Its zoning is for a nonexclusive farm use.

Two issues are present in this appeal. The first is whether plaintiffs' appeal is timely. The second is whether plaintiffs' use of the subject property was sufficient to qualify the property for special assessment as lands in farm use.

Is plaintiffs' appeal timely?: On or about June 30, 2000, defendant sent a letter to Leland Smith, et al, 16796 SE Royer Rd., Clackamas, OR 97015. This letter stated the property at issue in this appeal had been disqualified from farm use special assessment.

Plaintiffs' appeal with this court was not filed until December 28, 2000. Plaintiffs explained that they did not receive actual notice of defendant's disqualification until November of 2000, when they learned of the act in the context of their inquiry as to why they had not received a tax statement. Two additional points are that defendant sent the notice of disqualification and tax statement to its address of record, and that during this period plaintiffs did not occupy the premises at that address, but instead leased it to a tenant. The relevant statute is ORS 305.280(1), which provides:

"Except as otherwise provided in this section, an appeal under ORS 305.275(1) or (2) shall be filed within 90 days after the act, omission, order or determination becomes actually known to the person, but in no event later than one year after the act or omission has occurred, or the order or determination has been made."

As the controversy at issue is an appeal from the assessor's decision to disqualify the property from special assessment, it is an appeal under ORS 305.275(1), specifically ORS 305.275(1)(a)(C). Plaintiffs testified that they first gained actual knowledge of the disqualification in November. Against this defendant argues that actual knowledge must have been gained at or about the time of mailing, for its correspondence was not returned as undeliverable.

Defendant's reasoning would be more persuasive if the mailing had been by registered or certified mail. On this state of the record the court finds as a matter of fact that plaintiffs did not gain actual knowledge of the disqualification until November of 2000, and appealed this act of the assessor the following month. The resulting conclusion of law is that plaintiffs' appeal is timely by virtue of ORS 305.280(1). See Schellin v. Dept. of Rev., 15 OTR 126 (2000).

Is plaintiffs' use of the property consistent with the special assessment?: Plaintiffs train and board horses professionally, and testified that they used the subject property and land in Clackamas County as part of their operations. The Clackamas County property consisted of barns and rings used in the boarding of horses and training for indoor arena work. The subject property consisted of a cabin, hay shed, and corral. Plaintiffs testified that they use the subject property to rehabilitate "barn soured" horses with outdoor grazing and trail riding. These programs consisted of riding the horses about the property, balanced by sessions of leaving them outdoors, either hobbled or on stakes. For the previous year five trips were taken, each of which lasted a week.

Defendant, speaking of inspections of the property, and conversations with a neighbor, argued this was not a sufficient use to qualify the property for special assessment, and that a more accurate description of the use of the property would be as recreational land with a hunting cabin.

Turning to this testimony, the court finds as a matter of fact that plaintiffs used the subject property as part of a training program in which equines, used to a restricted existence, are introduced to a more pastoral setting. This being the case, it is scarcely surprising that defendant's employees and plaintiffs' neighbors should see no evidence of animal containment, for the whole intent of the training was not to contain the animals, but to permit them a semblance of freedom. Defendant's testimony as to what was seen on the inspections of the property is not fatal to plaintiffs' case.

The more critical question is whether, as a matter of law, these training sessions for "barn soured" mounts are a sufficiently intensive use of the property. Plaintiffs used the land, a parcel more than a 1,000 acres in size, for five weeks. Previous decisions of this court have found that this degree of use is not enough to support the special assessment. Ameral v. Dept. of Rev., 14 OTR 56, 60-61 (1996). The language of that decision is equally applicable here:

"Furthermore, Stubbs boarded his horses on taxpayer's land just two to three months out of the year. In discussing the degree of use that must be made of the farm property, this court has stated:

'The great boon of tax relief to the bona fide farmer through the special exemption for farm use is not to be extended * * * unless the day-to-day activities on the subject land are principally and patently directed to achieving a profit in money through the farm use of the land.' Beddoe v. Dept. of Rev., 8 OTR 186, 190-91 (1979).

"Taxpayer's land was used only two to three months each year for farm use, which is insufficient to qualify for special assessment. The 'day-to-day activities' rather than a few months each year must be directed at achieving a profit. Taxpayer complains that the property is unsuitable for anything else the rest of the year. That may be true, but it does not entitle taxpayer to special assessment. As noted in Taylor.

'The special farm use assessment results in a diminution of property taxes on certain farm property and this requires additional tax contributions by all taxpayers to meet the property tax levies. Justification is found in the retention of farmland for agricultural production in spite of intense economic competition to divert such land to allegedly "higher and better" uses. To continue the special farm use in the case of land unused or unusable would defeat the legislative policy.' Taylor, 6 OTR at 501."

This precedent precludes giving plaintiffs the relief they request. Plaintiffs' responsibility for taxes previously deferred is at this point held as a potential additional liability by ORS 308A.706(1)(a). The property shall, for purposes of its annual assessment, have lost its status as lands in farm use.

CONCLUSION

IT IS THE DECISION OF THIS COURT that plaintiffs' appeal is denied.


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