A SWEET DEAL

NEED A TAX BREAK FOR THE NEW YEAR? CONSIDER RAISING BEES, DONKEYS, HAY OR, AS A LAST RESORT, A STINK WITH THE COUNTY ASSESSOR.TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE? FOR A SUCCESSFUL DEVELOPER SEEKING A TAX BREAK, THAT'S NO QUESTION. BUT TAXPAYERS GET STUNG.

Jack Vickers has a new interest. It's beekeeping. It's very profitable.
Vickers, who built his vast wealth by developing such projects as the exclusive Castle Pines residential area in Douglas County (the golf course there was designed by Jack Nicklaus), keeps the bees in an unlikely place. Here are the directions:

Drive south on I-25 from Denver. Exit the highway at Meadow Parkway, when you see the trendy Castle Rock factory outlet center. The beehives are directly adjacent, to the north and west, in a field between the interstate and U.S. highway 85 that's owned by Vickers's development company, Dev Vic Ltd.

So far, there have been no unfortunate shopper/bee encounters. But you might wonder why Vickers (estimated family wealth: $50 million) would lease his land to a beekeeper and risk swarms of stingers buzzing next to one of the state's busiest shopping centers. Here's a clue: It has nothing to do with honey and a lot to do with the Douglas County property-tax bills being mailed out this month.

Douglas County is the fastest-growing county in the United States, so land here can be very expensive. This is particularly true of commercial land in desirable locations--such as Vickers's property next door to the factory outlet shops. Last year the county assessor pegged its value at a fat $5.7 million. On the open market, Vickers's land could fetch even more: Two companies are in the process of bidding against each other to develop the site into more factory outlets.

High land values usually translate into high property taxes. But Colorado has a series of laws that permit landowners to earn lower property values--and thus lower tax bills--if they can prove their land is used for certain types of agriculture.

Vickers is well aware of those laws. Last year he claimed that his commercially zoned property crammed between the interstate and the shopping center was actually a ranch. He insisted that, just like a real rancher, he was keeping ten bulls on the property.

There was a problem, though: When county appraisers visited the land, they couldn't find a fence. Noting that fences to keep livestock in (and, in this case, off the interstate and away from the factory outlets) were generally considered a necessary feature of ranching, the assessor's office denied Vickers's request. Which is when Vickers appears to have become interested in beekeeping.

For years beekeepers have trooped up to the State Capitol during each legislative session. Their cause has been single-minded: To convince lawmakers that beekeeping is a genuine agricultural business and thus deserving of the property tax break. Keeping bees, they argue annually, is just like ranching very small cattle.

Every year state lawmakers ignore them. Yet the keepers have managed to convince some Douglas County officials. In August 1993 County Attorney Mark Hannen wrote to the assessor that, in his opinion, bees did have a lot in common with livestock. "They're animals--they graze the property," he explained. "They're used for producing food. And they're kept for breeding. We all know what goes on in a beehive."

More to the point for Vickers, bee wrangling doesn't involve fencing. Last summer he leased his Castle Rock land to a local beekeeper and tried again with the assessor's office, pointing out that herds of bees were now grazing his land, thus making it eligible for the agricultural tax break. Investigators were free to check it out.

They did. They remained unimpressed. The assessor's office pointed out that the legislature consistently had concluded that running a herd of bees didn't really count as ranching. (If one is smeared on a car windshield, does the beekeeper get livestock compensation?) Vickers was shot down again. Exercising his right to appeal his tax assessment, however, the developer took his case to the county Board of Equalization. And this past July, he won.

The spoils were worth the fight. In 1995, when it was assessed as commercial property, Vickers's $5.7 million worth of dirt landed him a property-tax bill of $161,000. Not this year. Because his real estate was redesignated as agricultural, it will be valued at a mere $13,199.

Vickers's tax bill, due to arrive this month, will be $371--a savings of more than $160,000.

The series of laws that provide ranchers and farmers a tax break grew out of an admission that agriculture is a fickle business. "If a person has a piece of ground and he depends on that ground to produce the revenue he'll use to pay taxes, it doesn't make sense to tax him more than he earns," explains Reeves Brown of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "If it didn't work that way, there'd be no farmer or rancher within fifty miles of Denver who could pay his taxes."

So legislators gave those in the business of working the land a break by valuing their property much, much lower than someone who, say, owns a piece of commercial real estate. The state agreed to value agricultural land by the amount of money earned from it. Once county assessors determine what the land is used for, they are required to assign it a set value. Depending on the county, wheat land is set at about $25 per acre, grazing land at about $16 per acre, and so on--no matter what the land is really worth on the open market.

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