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McNish is referring to a 24-acre site in the eastern part of the county that had been designated agricultural. That translated into a big tax break: The owner was paying taxes on a valuation of $23 an acre, rather than the $90,000-per-acre price the assessor figured the land was really worth.
Then again, the landowner knew her stuff.
Her name is Edith Clarke; when she's not taking care of her private law practice, she works part-time as the Elbert County attorney. And when the Douglas County assessor's office in 1992 changed her polo field from agricultural to vacant land--at a vastly higher tax rate--she fought back.
Clarke lost her case at the county Board of Equalization level. But when she took it to the state Board of Assessment Appeals, she won. "She claimed to be grazing the field in the fall, when the polo season was over," says McNish. (Clarke could not be reached for comment.)
The county decided to fight. "We just felt as a matter of principle that a polo field shouldn't be given a tax break," explains Hannen, the Douglas County attorney. But thirteen months ago Clarke won another round, when the state Court of Appeals sided with the assessment board.
The county will try to collect more taxes from Clarke one final time; McNish says the state Supreme Court is expected to hear the case sometime this year. Even though the dispute is over only a single tax year, it is not inconsequential. If the county wins, Clark owes more than $63,000 in taxes for 1992. If the Elbert County attorney wins, she pays less than $20.
Raise Anything Else
If Jack Vickers can convince Douglas County commissioners that herds of bees graze on fields like cows, the definition of what constitutes a farm animal is wide open. "We have people claiming to raise llamas, bees, pheasants, emus," says John Mikus, the Jefferson County appraiser. "Do you know what an emu is?"
Douglas County assessor Ginger Chase recalls an attempt made with geese. "A few years back we had so many grasshoppers around that this guy who had geese on his land claimed he deserved the agricultural break," she says. "His thinking was that his geese ate grasshoppers, which grazed on the land." His application was denied.
Others have been more successful. James Pederson raises pheasants on 180 acres in Elbert County. But not for food, necessarily.
Rather, he allows the pheasants to eat grain off the land, which he plants on several terraces. Then he rents the property out to hunters looking for an area thick with game birds. Nothing is harvested, nothing is grazed. But Pederson has hauled in a giant tax break: His land was valued at a paltry $16 an acre.
Until this year, when the Elbert County assessor determined that pheasants weren't really grazing animals and jumped Pederson's assessment to $1,125 an acre. He will receive his new tax bill later this month.
If game birds aren't your style, try donkeys. Better yet, make them miniature donkeys. Larry Dewald did.
Dewald lives in Morrison, but he owns two forty-acre lots in north-central Elbert County. There he raises a handful of the tiny donkeys, llamas and Afghan dogs. Although he purchased the land for $38,000, the assessor was forced to value it at the going agricultural rate for grazing--$1,320.
Last year, however, investigators discovered that when Dewald claimed his animals were grazing the entire property, he was being generous. Even though Dewald received an agricultural tax break on all eighty acres, the critters actually were penned inside a less than half-acre plot. The county yanked the tax break and reassessed his property at $32,000. Dewald is currently appealing the county's decision.
And if miniature donkeys and game birds don't do it for you, there are always the traditional land animals. And you don't have to own many to qualify for the tax break.
Herbert Van Buren, of northwestern Jefferson County, raises sheep, although it's unclear whether they actually constitute a flock. There are just two.
According to Van Buren, however, the pair needs 135 acres to graze. Never mind that the vast majority of the land is heavily wooded. "There's even no real vegetation there to speak of, nothing to graze on," says one Jeffco appraiser.
Still, Van Buren had received a generous tax break for years: the 135 acres were valued at just over $2,000--$14.80 an acre. But in 1994 Jeffco repossessed the deal, and Van Buren's land was assessed at its market value, $101,000.
Last year he appealed to the county Board of Equalization, which upheld the assessor. Van Buren appealed again, to the state's Board of Assessment Appeals. The board offered a compromise: Van Buren's two sheep could legitimately graze on fifteen acres. Van Buren disagreed. He is in the process of appealing his case one more time.
Pay Someone Else to Raise Something on Your Land
This strategy can be handy if you're the owner of a new home looking to shrink your tax bill, or the developer of a vast tract of land on the edge of a metropolitan area.
Homeowners first. To see property-tax creativity in action, drive past Golden on Highway 93 and head toward Boulder. To the left, climbing into the foothills of Jefferson County, is Golden Gate Canyon, a winding road of scenic beauty and fancy homes.