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Representatives from a number of Newtown’s agricultural enterprises came out September 6 as the Legislative Council held a public hearing on three ordinances, including one that would provide a nominal benefit that reduces property taxes on qualified barns at local working farms.
The council also heard residents’ remarks about a revision to the Roads and Sidewalks Ordinance, and the Tax Abatement for Volunteer Fire, Ambulance, and Underwater Rescue Personnel Ordinance.
All three of the measures then moved to the regular council agenda, and were subsequently approved.
The Newtown Bee previously reported that the ordinance creating a Farm Building Property Tax Exemption was suggested by the operators of one of the remaining working farms in Newtown. Ordinance Committee Chairman Ryan Knapp explained that the council was enabled to authorize certain outbuilding property tax exemptions by state statute.
“The state allows municipalities to exempt certain outbuildings like barns and sheds up to a given point, up to $100,000 per building,” Mr Knapp said. “But the benefit can only be conveyed to a working farm as identified by statute. And according to a list from the assessor’s office, there are about a hundred qualifying outbuildings in Newtown, and those buildings only make up a total of $1.5 million on our grand list.”
The grand list is an inventory of every taxable piece of property in the municipality.
“While a few of these buildings represent high-end barns, valued in the six-figure range, most are smaller barns, sheds, and other outbuildings that aren’t taxed very much because nobody is living in them,” Mr Knapp said. “By implementing this, we’d need to set the maximum benefit by resolution.”
Upon deliberation by the full council on August 16, that cap in the ordinance language was set at $50,000 per taxable parcel, which at maximum provides about a $1,690 reduction. If enacted as proposed, only four farm parcels in town would have buildings valued higher than the ordinance cap.
During deliberation September 6, Councilman Chris Eide noted that if every owner of a qualified farm barn in town applied for and received the full benefit as entitled under the approved ordinance, the total local annual tax revenue impact would be $38,000, while Councilman Neil Chaudhary further calculated that the median benefit provided under that circumstance would be $370.
Mr Knapp said he and several of his colleagues at the August 16 meeting recognized the town was facing a revenue shortfall, and admitted that it was challenging to bring forward any ordinance that would exempt local property tax revenue.
Barn Exemption Supported
Geordie Elkins told the council he moved to Newtown because he appreciated the community’s rural character, and strongly favored anything that supports farming.
Mr Elkins, who works at Planters’ Choice, said he was fully in favor of paying taxes if there are lasting benefits and would support the ordinance even more strongly if it only applied to farms that maintained agricultural conservation easements.
But it was later explained that by statute all local farms had to be permitted to apply for the benefit, regardless of whether they have conservation easements.
Chuck Newman of Planters Choice said his family maintains about 100 acres of farmland in town that his parents bought in 1930s, and is proud to be keeping it as open space, considering the implications of selling the land for residential housing. Mr Newman said that a lot of towns offering a similar benefit program exempt barns assessed up to $100,000 — but he was “very happy for anything you can do for us.”
Dean Sepe of Sepe Farms sheep farm told the council that the new benefit was “very appreciated.” He, too, said that his family moved to Newtown because of its rural character, and suggested that enacting the ordinance could enhance attraction of younger farmers to Newtown.
Andria Haas of Maple Corner Farm arrived in Newtown in 1966, and has worked selling farms as a realtor since 1968.
“I came here for the rural quality and because Newtown welcomed people with horses,” she said. As Ms Haas developed a Morgan horse breeding operation, Ms Haas said she built barns, and still keeps horses on her Hattertown Road property, as well as maintaining a popular neighborhood farm stand.
“This is a great idea,” she added. “I would like to see us help the farmers; urban sprawl is creeping in. I’m happy you are considering an abatement on barns.”
Janis Nezvesky who operates Sam’s Tree Farm, told the council that she would like to be able to continue maintaining her farm, which is located in an area that remains “pretty rural.”
Farmers Back Responders
As a member at Botsford Volunteer Fire Company, Ms Nezvesky was one of several farmers who also requested the council support the ordinance granting nominal tax exemptions to emergency volunteers.
“They put in a lot of hours,” she said, “so keep that benefit going and anything else to support the volunteer fire departments.”
Kim Macy said she farms property on Huntingtown Road, and has been working on farms in Newtown for more than 30 years.
“I wanted to stay in Newtown,” she said, pointing out that a former farm where she lived was sold and turned into building lots. “I’m in favor of exemptions — we need that help,” said Ms Macy.
Ms Macy also pitched the council to support “anything you can do for the fire department [volunteers]. They put their hearts into it.”
After the hearing closed and the council meeting convened, Mr Elkins returned to the microphone to add his support for the volunteer emergency services tax abatement. Ms Haas also returned to the speaker’s table asking to clarify whether barns containing living facilities would be included in the ordinance. Mr Knapp clarified that generally they would not, a point that was affirmed by Town Attorney David Dobin.
Speaking to the roads ordinance revision, Anthony D’Angelo asked the council whether imposed road improvements like paving and installing drainage on nonpaved roads would confer an increased tax burden to adjacent residents because those improvements boosted their property values.
First Selectman Pat Llodra, who was attending, responded saying that if a subsequent revaluation determined the assessed value had increased because of adjacent public road improvements, that the homeowner would have to bear what she suspected could be a nominal property tax increase. But she added that the homeowner would also enjoy a proportional increase in their property’s resale value.