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Forestry tax deferrals could end

The Cumberland County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a workshop for Nov. 4 in preparation for a vote which could end the tax exemption on forest land through the county’s Land Use Program, driving up taxes for some residents.

Cumberland’s Land Use Program currently allows eligible agricultural, horticultural and forest land in the county to be taxed based on the land’s use value as opposed to the land’s market value. The program is designed to encourage the preservation of land, conservation of natural beauty and open spaces within the county, easing pressures that force the conversion of real estate to more intensive uses.

But all of that rural beauty comes with a price tag. According to a 2021 County Land Use Tax Program summary, approximately $444,355 a year in taxes are deferred through the forestry portion of the program alone, $293,997.22 of which are exemptions given to non-Cumberland property owners.

Participants, according to Board Chair and District 1 Supervisor Brian Stanley, receive a tax break of between $9 and $10 per acre through the program, which is below the average for Virginia due to land values.

Removing forestry from the program could bring in over $400,000 a year in additional revenue.

Supervisors held a public hearing Sept. 14 to consider amending Section 58-211 of the county code regarding special assessments in order to remove forestry as an allowable exemption, but numerous members of the public showed up to contest the idea, pointing to the potential environmental impact as well as the potential impact on local families.

Stanley questioned if the county could simply no longer allow non-Cumberland property owners to take part in the forestry exemption, but Commissioner of the Revenue Julie Phillips noted county code does not allow for the exclusion of a specific group.

A motion was made by District 2 Supervisor Ron Tavernier to amend the code, but no other supervisor seconded and the motion died.

Numerous residents returned to the Board’s Oct. 12 meeting to once again express concern surrounding any future attempts to remove forestry from the Land Use Program.

“There’s got to be other ways to bring the money in to pay the bills,” resident Larry Thompson said.

“I truly worry for my children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the land that has been in my family for generations,” noted citizen Will Sanderson, who expressed concern about landowners being able to pay the taxes on their land in the future should the code amendment occur. “If you vote tonight to end forestry land use, you will see many tracts of timber being sold to large developers and countrysides of woodlands slowly disappear.”

“One of the things we never did in the last 16 years I was on the Board — we never attacked our businesses,” former Supervisor Bill Osl stated. “We never assaulted them with a big tax increase, and that’s what this is. It’s a tax increase … For over 20 years, the budget’s been balanced without changing Land Use.”

Others asked that the Board table the discussion and bring in a group of industry specialists to provide insight on the consequences of the code amendment before any further votes occur.

During Board member comments, Tavernier highlighted that of the 149 Cumberland residents claiming a forestry exemption, 130 receive a deferral of less than $1,000. The average deferral for residents in this group is $377.

In 2021, 14 residents received a tax deferral between $1,000 and $1,999. Just two residents had a tax deferral between $2,000 and $2,999, and three residents had a deferral between $3,000 and $3,999.

“We have over 10,000 citizens that we have to be concerned about,” remarked Board Vice Chair and District 3 Supervisor Eurika Tyree. “We need to be fair and consistent across the board.”

District 4 Supervisor Gene Brooks made a motion to delay any further votes on the matter until the November Board meeting. The vote was seconded by Tyree and passed unanimously.

“It is incumbent on this Board to get this issue right,” Brooks commented.

A Forestry Land Use Workshop is currently scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 4, at 6 p.m. at the Cumberland County Courthouse. The workshop is slated to include presentations by officials from the Virginia Forestry Association, the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Virginia Department of Taxation and the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Following the meeting, the Board will adjourn until its next regular meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 9.