MOUNT JACKSON, Pa. – There was a full hall last week as Lawrence County farmers came to hear how the reassessment of their land might work in their favor under an almost 30-year-old Pennsylvania law most had never heard of.
Clean and Green has been on the books in Pennsylvania since 1975. It is a state mandate to the counties to offer ag use assessment to land owners who voluntarily enroll in the program.
Dan Brockett, a community and economic development specialist for the northwest Pennsylvania district of Penn State Cooperative Extension, conducted informational meetings Oct. 24 at Westfield Grange west of Mount Jackson in the afternoon, and then at Liberty Grange west of Harlansburg in the evening.
Use value. Land enrolled in Clean and Green is assessed at ag use, ag reserve, or forest reserve values established by each county, but within a maximum use value established by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Once a plot of land is enrolled, however, it cannot be removed from the program without paying rollback taxes for the difference between ag assessment and market value for up to seven years, plus 6 percent interest per year.
Farm preservation. Clean and Green was Pennsylvania’s first attempt at farm and forest land preservation, and it is still the only state program that lowers property taxes on farm and forest land.
When it was passed, lawmakers were looking ahead to the prospect of reassessment in most counties. The general provisions of the act stated that “the difference between assessments of enrolled land and land that is not enrolled will be more noticeable when a county is reassessed.”
And the process of enrollment has just about kept pace with the process of reassessment in Pennsylvania.
Many counties have not undergone reassessment since the 1950s.
More each year. According to Doug Wolfgang, who manages the Clean and Green program for the Farmland Preservation office of the Pa. Department of Agriculture, the pace of reassessment has been a slow but steady three or four counties each year.
As each county reassesses, he said there is usually a large jump in the amount of land enrolled in Clean and Green.
The total amount of land enrolled has increased from 543,000 acres in 1981 to 5.3 million enrolled in 1999, to 6.54 million acres in 2000. There are now Clean and Green farmlands or forestlands in more than 90 percent of Pennsylvania counties.
Although the largest concentration of Clean and Green farm land is in the southeast, Wolfgang said there is a concentration of forest reserve parcels enrolled in the northern tier of counties.
There is nothing in Clean and Green regulations that would prohibit a forest reserve from being harvested, he said.
“You can even clear cut. You just can’t do anything that would prevent the regrowth of forest on that land.”
The same is true for agricultural use land. There are no restrictions on its use, as long as that is agricultural and produces at least $2,000 in gross income in a year.
Splitting off. The landowner even has the option of splitting off small tracts of up to 2 acres for residential use or for establishing and operating a farm-based enterprise.
In western Pennsylvania, Beaver County had just completed a reassessment at the time the law was passed in 1975. Landowners began enrolling in the program immediately.
There are 1,200 parcels totaling over 50,000 acres enrolled in Clean and Green in Beaver County today.
Washington County has 7,013 plots including 37,000 acres, and Greene County 850 plots containing 27,849.
In northwest. The pace of reassessment in other western Pennsylvania counties has been slower. But in the wake of a court-ordered reassessment in Allegheny County that is just now in the process of appeal and adjustment, other county commissions have begun to step forward.
Venango County just completed reassessment and the process of enrolling landowners in Clean and Green.
According to the Venango County assessor’s office, the 1,680 parcels enrolled have a decreased valuation of almost $50 million. From the market value assessment of $99.2 million, they were reduced to an ag or forest reserve assessment of $56.2 million.
According to Wolfgang, neither Mercer nor Crawford counties have reported any land enrolled in Clean and Green. Butler County has only six parcels that total 650 acres, and Erie County’s 310 parcels total 9,660 acres.
Erie County is also in the process of a reassessment.
Not been issue. According to Brockett, most people in northwest Pennsylvania had never heard of Clean and Green until recently because the program made no sense for them as long as the assessed valuation of their land remained low.
In most cases, he said, the ag use valuation would have been higher than the market value.
But Clean and Green is not an automatic call for every farm, even after the assessed market value of land has been increased.
The purpose of the law was to preserve green space and agricultural use, and the intent was to give farmers a tax break that would help them afford to continue to farming.
But it forces farmers to decide what they want the future of their farm to be, Brockett said.
While the minimum parcel of land that can be enrolled is 10 acres, all contiguous land that is included in a deed has to be enrolled.
If a land owner has any interest in selling his land for development at any time in the foreseeable future, it would not be in his interest to enroll it in the ag use value program. Not only would the owner face the rollback taxes on the whole parcel of land when any portion of it is sold, but the actual market value of the land might be reduced by having the land enrolled.
It is the land that is enrolled, not the landowner. It can be sold, but the new owner has to keep the land in agricultural or forest reserve use.
Deed section off. The only way a land owner could set aside a portion of his land for commercial development while enrolling the remainder in Clean and Green would be to separate the deed before the land is enrolled, and continue to pay taxes on the market value assessment of the portion that would not be enrolled.
The ag use part of the program is really intended for the family farm, Wolfgang said.
Brockett said the biggest concern landowners have expressed is over land use restrictions. Many people think they should be able to use their own land in any way they want to – but they would also like to have the agricultural use assessment to lower their land taxes, he said.
Can’t make land. Roger Hersman, who enrolled his small 30-cow dairy farm in Clean and Green in Venango County, said his decision was based as much on his desire to keep the land as a farm as much as lowering his own taxes.
“You can’t make land,” he said.
Even though his daughters, the youngest of which is now 18, are not interested in farming, Hersman said he would like to see somebody else keep the land in agriculture.
“There aren’t too many farms left in Venango County,” he said.
(Jackie Cummins can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)