SALEM, Ohio – Dave Coldwell says if his situation is any indication, Ohio is in a crisis.
The Columbiana County tree farmer said he is being put through the ringer, denied CAUV tax rights on parts of his property by the county auditor, and fighting in court for tax savings that seem like they should be allowable, no questions asked.
How many other landowners, in the county and across the state, are in the same situation and don’t even know it?, he wonders.
Plenty, he said. And he’s fighting for them all.
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Dave Coldwell and his wife, Lisa, and three sons have lived just outside of Salineville in southwestern Columbiana County for 24 years.
They formalized their tree farm in 2004, with hopes that in 30 years they’d have one of the nicest tree farms in Ohio.
Dave and son Jed, both consulting foresters, and another son Jared, a college student studying forestry, developed forest management plans, spent days on end trimming grapevines in their nearly 500 acres of woodlots, did timber stand improvements and tree plantings and release cuttings.
When they bought a neighbor’s 98-acre property in August 2004 – wooded property that abutted theirs – they didn’t figure there would be any issue operating it like any other part of their tree farm.
On Jan. 1, 2005, the Coldwells got a slap in the face. That’s when the county said the newest purchase didn’t qualify for current agricultural use valuation (CAUV) for taxes.
“We really didn’t think we’d have any trouble with CAUV on this at all,” Jed Coldwell said.
Enrollment in CAUV would save the Coldwells a huge chunk in property taxes. Their tax bill was roughly $1,100 for the 98-acre parcel, instead of the $330 they figured on.
The 485 acres of woodlot they purchased through the end of 2002 did qualify, so why didn’t this one, they wondered.
They filed a complaint with the county and made their case public.
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The Columbiana County Auditor defines CAUV as a “state-sponsored, county-implemented program which provides property tax relief for owners of land exclusively used for agricultural purposes.
“To qualify, you must have 10 or more acres devoted exclusively to farming, or have less than 10 acres devoted exclusively to farming which produces an average gross income of at least $2,500,” Auditor Nancy Milliken explains on her Web site.
But Ohio Revised Code goes on to say land also qualifies for CAUV if, “during the three calendar years prior to the year in which application is filed, the land is devoted exclusively to commercial … production for a commercial purpose of timber … or the growth of timber for a noncommercial purpose, if the land on which the timber is grown is contiguous to or part of a parcel of land under common ownership that is otherwise devoted exclusively to agricultural use … .”
It’s right there in black and white, the Coldwells say. Their property should qualify.
The man who sold them the 100-acre parcel in question had discussed forest management with the Coldwells, and offered a sworn affidavit that he knew the value of the timber on his property. He said he knew it wasn’t quite time for a harvest, but was passively managing it for forestry, allowing the trees more time to grow.
“In forestry, trees growing is our production phase. You can’t cut [trees] all the time and expect to still have a good forest,” Jed Coldwell said.
“In order to qualify [forestland for CAUV], the auditor’s office wants to see a receipt for a timber sale, and that’s not right,” Dave Coldwell added.
“Then they say we didn’t own the property for three years, so we don’t qualify. Had the previous landowner butchered the trees, they say we’d be OK. It’s the land that qualifies, not the landowner,” Coldwell asserts.
“Plus the property is contiguous to other property that’s already in CAUV. The county knows it, but they don’t want to give up the tax revenue.”
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The Columbiana County Board of Revision – made up of Auditor Nancy Milliken, treasurer Linda Bolon, and commissioner Gary Williams – denied the Coldwells’ request for CAUV.
County officials have yet to fill out the required paperwork to deny the Coldwells the tax break, or to visit their woodlot and give credibility to their denial, Dave Coldwell said.
“If they filled it out, they’d have right in front of them the exact reasons we do qualify,” he said.
The Coldwells took their case to the state Board of Tax Appeals in 2005, and were denied at that level based on their property’s timber value.
Now, they’ve filed suit in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court against the board of revision, the auditor, and the school district they live in.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Nick Barborak, who represents the board of revision, said the dispute isn’t related to the woodlot’s current use. Instead, he said, the dispute lies in a three-year time frame required for CAUV.
Columbiana County Auditor Nancy Milliken cited the pending litigation and limited her comments.
“There is a three-year waiting period. That’s all I have to say on the advice of our prosecutor,” she said.
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Ohio Farm Bureau director of local affairs Larry Gearhardt calls the situation “an illustration on the confusion of timber being allowed in CAUV.”
The confusion has gone on for the 15 years he’s been with the Farm Bureau, he said.
But in this case, Gearhardt said the Coldwells should be allowed CAUV tax savings.
“The board of revision didn’t even consider the Ohio Revised Code section that mentions being contiguous to other land already in CAUV,” he asserts. “They should be able to tack this parcel right on,” to their existing CAUV-enrolled property.
“With low CAUV property values, school boards are breathing down the necks of county auditors,” to keep property taxes flowing.
“The cards sure are stacked against CAUV landowners right now,” Gearhardt said.
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The Coldwells have been fighting for the tax breaks for almost two years, investing countless hours of time and thousands of dollars in their fight.
While they’re fighting for themselves, they’re also trying to set a precedent for tree farmers across the state.
“There are 88 county auditors making decisions, and as far as we can see, there’s no uniformity,” Dave Coldwell said.
“County auditors are impeding the livelihoods of full-time tree farmers.
“We’d love to start getting along with [county officials], but we’re not about to step down without a fight,” Coldwell said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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