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.

Not surprisingly, it wasn't a mom-and-pop Christmas tree outfit in Lake County that tested the law first. It was a developer in the process of building some of the most expensive homes in the state.

In 1993 Anasazi Partnership, which owned a development called Reva Chase near Genesee, along the north side of I-70 in the foothills of Jefferson County, applied for an agricultural tax break under the new forest-products statute.

The company had already begun developing lots, which were being sold for as much as $120,000 apiece, for soon-to-be-built posh homes. To prepare the sites, the developer had to cut down some trees--which Anasazi claimed it was selling as firewood, making the company deserving of the new agricultural tax break.

The county assessor denied Anasazi's request, as did the Board of Equalization. And although the company filed its intent to take its case to the state Board of Assessment Appeals, it later dropped the matter.

But according to Alan Owen, who oversees the program for the state forestry service in the Golden district, since Anasazi applied for the forestry tax break, the number of people asking for and receiving lower assessments has steadily increased. Today there are thirty in his region alone.

Owen insists, however, that there is little abuse--he has denied only three requests in four years--and that the program insures responsible forest management. "My philosophy is, if you're going to avoid paying the taxes, then, by golly, you're going to cut some trees," he says.

During last year's legislative session, lawmakers added yet another way for non-farmers and ranchers to earn the agricultural tax break: a "conservation easement." The new law permits owners of large parcels of land to maintain their low taxes even if they take the land out of production. The measure was pushed by environmental groups, under the theory that it would give farmers and ranchers who have decided to stop working the land an incentive to keep the land open and undeveloped.

Ginger Chase, the Douglas County assessor, so far has received only one formal request for the new tax break. But, she says, more are almost certainly on the way.

"There are other developers starting to talk about it," she says. "So my guess is that it's going to turn into another way to develop land at a lower tax rate.

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