Developer Gets Ag Exemption

(Jones lives on the plateau being developed by Skyline Development and heads up the “Save The Plateau” group.)

The Idaho tax code is designed to encourage farming and ranching, most notably via property tax agricultural exemptions.

Basically, the agricultural exemption creates a formula whereby farmers and ranchers are taxed on the earning potential of their property based on use, rather than on the true VALUE of the land if used for purposes such as subdivisions.

The exemption can be valuable. For a person with a $150,000 house, property taxes will be in the $2,000 range.

For a developer with an agricultural exemption on an $8-10 million pasture about ready to assorted residences, taxes may be as low as $400.

The idea of the exemption is to keep prime agricultural land in use turning out cattle and row crops rather than row houses. The only hook is that, to qualify for the exemption, the landowner has to raise crops or cattle…unless they live in Ada County.

Since the 1800s, people have tried, and generally failed, to raise horses and cattle on Hammer Flat above Lucky Peak Dam. They all appropriately received agricultural exemptions on the property.

In 2002 or 2003, the most recent owner quit running cattle on the property. At that time, Hammer Flat was valued at about $2,000,000.

If taxed at the same rate as other owners of bare, non-agricultural ground in the county, the tax bill would have been about $20,000. However, the assessor didn’t check to see if the land was still being used for agricultural purposes.

With the agricultural exemption in place the owner only paid a few hundred dollars in property taxes. The owner received a $19,000+ gift from other Ada County residents courtesy of Bob McQuade.

In early 2005, with the announced intent of constructing a “planned community,” Skyline Development acquired the property. Not known for their ranching activities, it was no surprise when, for at least the third year in a row, no cattle appeared on the plateau.

However, cattle or no cattle, the Ada County Assessor dutifully transferred the agricultural Exemption from the previous owner to Skyline. On the $8 – $10 million, 700 acre combination of parcels, Skyline was charged about $400 in taxes. With the new, higher, valuation of the land, the effective gift to Skyline from the assessor approached $90,000.

Fast forward to mid 2006; Reporters questioned Skyline about their ranching activities. Recognizing that something had to be done, and running counter to the other ranchers in this part of the state that think the prime grazing period is in the spring, Skyline dodged a bullet by claiming that they intended to graze cattle on Hammer Flat late in the late fall when the temperatures were lower…and the grass was dead and brown.

Skeptics wondered what the next trick would be. It was a good one.
Hammer Flats 1.jpg

In late summer 2006, the Discovery fire burned part of Hammer Flat. Skyline used the opportunity to call McQuade’s office to ask for a waiver of the need to pursue agricultural activities on their property. The details are conveyed in a letter from Edward Johnson to Diane Kelly in the assessor’s office on October 4, 2006;

“It has been our intent to put some of our herd of dairy heifers on this property this fall in October/November. However, since a substantial portion of the property was denuded by a fire earlier this summer there is not enough feed available. Hence the decision conveyed to us via telephone today is that due to circumstances beyond our control, the pasturage was badly burnt, the requirement to bring some of our cattle onto the property is waived for the year 2006.”

Of the 11 parcels of ground for which McQuade granted Skyline their agricultural exemption, and the obligation to use it for agriculture, 7 were untouched by the fire and an 8th was only marginally burnt. Even though 560 acres, 79 percent, of Skyline’s land was untouched by the fire, McQuade waived the requirement to use the land for agricultural purposes on all 11 parcels. Another $90,000+ gift from Ada County taxpayers to Skyline courtesy of Bob McQuade!

I cannot fault Skyline for trying to get the best tax deal possible. However, the agricultural exemption is one of the state’s few tools for helping preserve prime agricultural land from the march of urban sprawl. In this case it has been turned on its head and is being used to subsidize a developer–the exact opposite of what it was designed to do.

The degree to which assessors like Bob McQuade are giving away the farm to other developers in Ada and other Counties is in dire need of review.

Comments & Discussion

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. I am going to go get a goat and have it start “grazing” on my yard so I can get the exemption! 🙂

  2. I can attest that this unwarranted ag exemption has been going on for at least the last 35 years. I suspect that most of west Boise and Meridian were bought and paid for by developers when land was cheap and that the Assessor continued the ag exemption at least until the land was platted and curbs and gutters started to be built.

    The developers probably didn’t even have to go to the trouble of lying about horses and cows like Skyline is doing. If my memory is correct the land use change didn’t kick in until a house was built and then only one lot at a time. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. A good investigator with lots of time and patience could probably check this out.

  3. Nothing new, the loophole may or may not need review, but where would it stop. Obviously, the high profile cases always get brought up; look at Dirk’s property by Tamarack. Maybe Tony could shed some light about his work with Tamarack.

    His website and resume touts his work with Tamarack. Talk to the locals up there. They complain about the same issues as Tony has with Hammer Flat: traffic ,wildlife and developer giveaways.

    Could this truly be a NIMBY issue.

  4. Hmmmm, so Skyline’s website indicated that the property has been mismanaged and overrun by noxious weeds (state law requires noxious weeds to be controlled by the landowner). Since they are in the agriculatural business, I wonder why they aren’t controlling them.

    Also, how convienient a fire started and prevented them the hassle of trucking cows to the site and updating the fencing, cows getting loose, all the incoveniences of modern ranching. I would propably start a range fire myself to get out of that pickle!

    Finally, if they are claiming the ag exemption, then why are they trying to rezone it? I guess this pertains to all developments, but it is sorta a paradox. By getting an ag exemption aren’t they in a way locking in their purchase as an agricultural property?

  5. Its a simple thing, fire the bum Bob McQuade for not doing his job. I bet he would think twice for not looking into some of these issue’s if he thought he might lose his retirment, medical, Goverment days off vacation pay. All the things the common workers out here don’t have any more.

  6. Skyline claims that the land is overrun with noxious weeds and so is currently poor habitat for deer. They further claim that as part of their development they will turn this land into suitable deer habitat by planting forage – in sum, this is their mitigation plan offered to Fish and Game. Yet pre-burn and pre-mitigation, they tell the tax commission it would support dairy heifers, which require much better nutrition? As I once heard a lawyer ask a defendant – “Were you lying then? Or, are you lying now?”

  7. Tony,
    I checked the Ag subsidy database and found that Skyline development also recieved $233.00 in Federal wheat subsidy in 1996 and $79.00 corn subsidy in 1997. Perhaps you are treating these real farmers and ranchers a bit harshly. Sounds to me like they are really trying to make a go of farming and ranching. Perhaps Bob McQuade is a supporter of family farms? Our fine Idaho Republican legislature is always trying to look out for the little guy. Why should the poor be the only ones getting welfare?

  8. We bought and moved into a house adjacent to the subject property in January 1997. It is at the dead end of Brian Way. Every year I protested my taxes to the Ada County commissioners. I compared my taxes to the taxes levied on all the property surrounding my property. But to no avail.

    For about 5 years there were some rugged looking cattle (not dairy cattle either since they need good feed and grain and lots of water, just like the rugged looking cattle, if a person cares about animals) grazing that we could see on that 700 acres. There were large herds of mule deer, small herds of pronghorn antelope, an elk or two, one moose, many coyotes, fox and kits each year, at least one mountain lion per year and so many different kinds of birds stopped for water and food all year long. The large fire of September 2001 or 2002 stopped the cattle grazing on that 700 acres, that we could see.

    Our 0.47 acres let us pay from $1,000 to $1,200 per year thanks to Mr. Bob McQuade and Ms. Diane Kelly. That was about $2,000 to $2,400/acre/year out of my pocket instead of the paltry sum the Johnson’s have paid. I wonder if the assessor’s office is paying the Johnson’s real taxes or if the Johnson’s are paying McQuade and Kelly a little somethin-somethin.

    I would like to know how many cattle the Johnson’s own. If any, what kind of cattle.

    If “the agricultural exemption is one of the states few tools for helping preserve prime agricultural land from the march of urban sprawl”, then someone needs to prosecute these county assessors.

    I apologize for my fragmented remarks. When I get angry I become very fragmented and say whatever pops into my thick head.

  9. I am comletely amazed by this. Does anyone ever actually go out and check on things? Does Skyline even have a herd of cattle? This truly reassures my belief that developers are “Evil Genius” and that those in charge of government must definitely have their heads buried in the sand. I personnally will never want to see Hammer Flats developed, it would truly be a shame.

  10. Hanging Chad
    Nov 8, 2006, 10:21 am

    Bob McQuade is lucky his name was the only choice on the ballot for County Assesor. His days are numbered for allowing this kind of tax sham. Let’s hold him to the fire on this. I want answers!

    Hopefully guys like Paul Woods will see through these kinds of theivery.

  11. The Pirate is correct.

    According to the application for The Cliffs, in the executive summary of the “Biological Evaluation for Skyline I Development Property: Pre-site Conditions, Development Effects, Mitigation and Enhancement Plan,” Skyline’s consultant, Accipiter Consulting, makes the following statement;

    “In its current state, the Property (Hammer Flat) is highly degraded from historic land use, practices and recent wildfires. Dominant habitat types on the Property include perennial grasslands, annual grasslands, rabbitbrush, and remnant shrub patches. All habitats on the Property are highly degraded by invasive exotic plants, including several noxious weeds. Exotic annual grasses and forbs, such as medusahead, cheatgrass, and rush skeletonweed, dominate much of the landscape and pose a threat to nearby public lands and homes from wildfire and spread of weeds.”

    The developer would seemingly have the Ada County Commission believe the habitat is a threat to public safety, is too poor to support starving deer, and therefore requires the bare minimum for mitigation for its loss. At the same time, they would have the Ada County Assessor believe the habitat is good enough for dairy heifers and therefore qualifies for the agricultural exemption, even when they don’t put heifers on it.

    Noxious weeds for dairy feed? Dairy pasture poses public hazard?

    Trying to have it both ways.

  12. I live on a hill top above Hammer Flats and every day of the year I see what activity may or may not be occurring out there on the flats.

    As I recall, winter grazing of cattle hasn’t occurred since early on in 2002. In addition, no grazing of horses, no goats, no pigs, or any other domestic stock grazed out on Hammer Flat. The cattle that had grazed out there had to be supplemented with alphafa and oat hay to satisfy their nutritional needs just to survive the winter.

    Cattle that grazed on Hammer Flat were your typical range stock; at best the beef would grade for low grade hamburger and maybe TV dinner quality. You put a dairy operation in out there and every dairy animal would go dry within a week and be sold for pot pie meat soon after. Oh, there is the occasional steer that gets loose from a local resident that may venture (trespass) onto the developers property to eat weed, but even those trespassing steers realize that it isn’t always greener on the other side of the dirt road they cross. Well, that is the extent of agricultural use of the developers property. There is no water out there either.

    The 2006 Discovery wildfire, as I recall started on August 10th and the point of ignition was very near the developer’s property boundary, it is possible it started on the developer’s property. The fire moved rapidly to the east by a very strong wind coming out of the west, the fire burned away from Skyline property and burned many private parcels of land. Sure, there was some backing fire that slowly spread to the west against the wind, and the developer had a few acres of dead weeds burn. My guess, maybe 25 acres at best.

    Well, yours truly had every acre burn and some improvements as well, and still waiting for a tax break, a write off, or an agricultural exemption.

    Just wait, with the new homes and the new flock of home owners moving in and start impacting the surrounding area with their fireworks and cigarette butts, there will be plenty of wildfire activity to keep us firefighters busy.

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