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Opinion: Farm Tax Break May Wither

Senate committee approves a bill requiring greater sales to qualify for farmland assessment.

It may finally get a little harder for property owners to get a huge tax break for selling a few hundred dollars in Jersey tomatoes, evergreens, or stacks of firewood cut from their land.

The Senate environment committee released a bill doubling the amount of income a landowner would have to get from his property to be eligible for the preferential farmland assessment. That’s only the first step in what could be a long road to enactment for the measure.

It’s unclear how many people would be impacted by the change because the state does not keep good records for the program.

There are great benefits to the program. It keeps land open, which helps maintain lower levels of pollution and congestion, not to mention that open space is aesthetically pleasing. It also helps keep the garden in the Garden State and keeps farmers, some of whom struggle mightily to make ends meet, in business.

The law was enacted in 1964 to stem the loss of farm acres and help keep farming viable as the state got more developed and more congested.

There have been some tweaks, but the main regulations have not kept up with inflation in the intervening 48 years: A landowner still must have at least 5 acres devoted to farming or forestry and the sale of goods produced must total just $500.

The inflation rate over that time has risen more than sixfold, meaning that had it kept pace with inflation, that $500 threshold today would equal $3,711.

The legislation that cleared committee last week only seeks to double the threshold to $1,000 worth of vegetables or flowers or stacks of wood to continue to get the favorable low assessment.

That seems more than fair, particularly given that every $1 of tax break received by someone in the farmland assessment program must be made up by those who don’t own 5 acres that can generate income.

Should the bill pass and be signed by Gov. Chris Christie, it could potentially have the greatest impact in Washington Township in Gloucester County.

According to the state database, more than 10,000 acres of land in the township are farmland assessed at an average value of $437 an acre. In 2010, those acres generated a total $103,000 in property taxes or about $10.20 per acre.

Consider that there were six 1-acre vacant, non-farm properties in the township last year with an average assessment was $54,883. They paid an average of $1,271 in taxes.

It’s no wonder that anyone with 5 acres tries to qualify for farmland assessment. And it’s not just people who benefit, but some companies, as well. Lincoln Park Airport, Ilac Realty and Hercules all own land assessed at low farm values.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau supports amending the law but wants to make sure that true farmers still get a preferential assessment so they can continue to make a living off the land.

That shouldn’t be a problem, given the $1,000 threshold would still be an even better deal than $500 was back when the program was enacted.

And making the program fairer would also be a good deal for land owners who might have to shoulder even a little less of the burden of other properties that are not paying their full weight of the state’s high property taxes. 

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

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