Lebanon County farmers have until Monday to avoid big increases in their property tax bills by signing up for the state’s Clean and Green program.
The county’s farm community was hit hard as a result of a court-ordered countywide reassessment that was completed this year, the first in 40 years.
Reassessment notices were sent out in late June, and many producers got letters showing their estimated tax bills for 2013 doubling or in some cases even tripling.
Property taxes are based on a land’s assessed value. The reassessment resets land values based on current market conditions.
Previous assessments had been based on 1972 land values, but a judge ordered the county to do a countywide reassessment after a lawsuit was filed in 2008 by an Annville couple, claiming property values had become outdated and unfair.
According to Dan Seaman, the county’s chief assessor, of the 2,900 parcels eligible for the Clean and Green program, more than 1,600 had signed up as of Oct. 4.
Interviewed by phone Tuesday, Seaman estimated a few hundred more would be signed up before Monday’s deadline. Landowners must have their Clean and Green applications postmarked by Oct. 15.
The Clean and Green program sets land values based on use rather than fair market value, often leading to a reduction in a farmer’s tax liability.
Seaman said most farmers in the county are getting a 50 to 90 percent reduction in their estimated 2013 tax bill as a result of enrolling in the program.
The new tax rates take effect Jan. 1.
Fifty seven of the state’s 67 counties participate in Clean and Green, including Berks and Lancaster counties. But because Lebanon County’s land values had been based on 1972 rates, the county had been one of the few not to participate.
Tim Barr of Evaluator Services and Technology, the company hired to do the reassessment, said 796 appeals were filed by landowners whose properties were eligible to participate in Clean and Green.
About 100 of the initial appeals were settled during informal hearings in late summer. The rest have gone to a formal hearing, with 123 cases yet to be heard as of Wednesday. Hearings have to be wrapped up by the end of the month.
Farmers came out in droves to several raucous reassessment meetings in the summer, with many skeptical of how the program would affect their right to sell individual land parcels and how it would affect the way they manage their land.
The program has several stipulations, the biggest being that land enrolled in the program — at least 10 acres in size or generating at least $2,000 in yearly income — continue in farming or face possible rollback taxes for the last seven years with 6 percent interest.
Landowners can sell entire tracts of land at any time without having to pay rollback taxes.
They can also “split off” two acres each year — maximum 10 percent of the entire property — for a residential dwelling and be required to pay rollback taxes only on the split-off portion.
They can also “separate” or sell a piece of property enrolled in the program without having to pay rollback taxes.
Seaman said there were many misconceptions about the program, leading many farmers to think it could potentially restrict their property rights.
“The biggest thing I liked to stress was talk to your counterparts in Berks and Lancaster, and see what it’s done for them,” Seaman said. “It’s been around for 40 years. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Barr said it’s typical to see landowners concerned about Clean and Green in counties where it hasn’t been introduced.
A similar reassessment a few years ago in Luzerne County, he said, brought out many of the same concerns that landowners in Lebanon have had.
“It takes perhaps additional educational efforts to introduce Clean and Green to a county that has never had it before. The concerns come up in any county when someone is considering Clean and Green. The fear, uncertainty and doubt factor can sometimes keep people out of the program,” Barr said.
Landowners can apply for Clean and Green by going to the county’s assessment office or downloading an application at the assessment website at www.lebcounty.org/Assessment/.
There is a $50 application fee along with an $18.50 recording fee and $10 per parcel certification fee.
Barr said multiple contiguous properties can be included on a single application.
Properties that are not contiguous, he said, have to be applied for separately.