Farmland assessment bill dies

WAILUKU – A Maui County Council committee Thursday night effectively killed a measure, strongly opposed by ranchers and farmers who were concerned about possibly paying higher property taxes and the formal dedication of their land to farming.

The council Budget and Finance Committee spent nearly four hours discussing the controversial bill aimed at easing the disparity in property tax assessments between agricultural and nonagricultural land and to catch tax cheats or “gentlemen farmers.” All county taxpayers are subsidizing farmlands to the tune of $20 million this current fiscal due to the significantly reduced land values assigned agricultural land.

The initial measure called for assessing farmlands at market value with discounts offered for dedication of land to agriculture. There would higher discounts for longer periods of dedication.

This provision sparked protests by farmers, who filled the Council Chambers on Feb. 29 to express their discontent with the bill in a rowdy hearing.

At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, some committee members expressed opposition to the bill, saying there were other ways to catch tax cheats and that the county should be providing incentives to farmers, not penalizing them.

It appeared the bill lacked support. Late in the meeting, Council Chairman Mike White offered an amended bill that basically eliminated all of the controversial elements. The amendment focused totally on the valuation of home sites on agricultural land and assessing the footprint of homes at market value.

“This is a fairness issue,” White said.

All council members speaking on the amendment agreed with White about fairness, but felt uncomfortable passing the stripped-down measure during the meeting. They wanted further public comment on a measure that focused totally on assessing the home sites.

White offered to defer his amendment without a vote, but Council Member Don Couch sought to file the measure and to later bring up a new bill focusing only on the home-site assessment. On a voice vote, the agricultural bill was unanimously killed.

In its original form last month, the bill called for assessing agricultural land at market value. Currently, agricultural land is assessed using an “agriculture use value,” which is based on a 1965 University of Hawaii study on the agricultural productivity of land.

Under the original bill, discounts from market value would have been given to those farmers who dedicated their land to agriculture, with land dedicated for 20 years receiving the highest discount – 98 percent of its fair market value.

But after listening to the more than 50 people testify at a Feb. 29 meeting, committee Chairman Riki Hokama made substantial amendments to the bill. Testifiers said that the bill would dramatically increase their property taxes, make it more difficult to farm and, ultimately, kill agriculture. There also was opposition to the dedication provision.

Hokama’s amended bill, introduced at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, called for having farmers and ranchers dedicate their land for 10 years to maintain current agricultural land use values. Even with the changes, committee members still had issues.

Council Member Gladys Baisa questioned the need for the dedication of the farmland and cited it as obstacle to farming.

“We are supposed to be supporting ag, diversified ag, not killing it,” she said to applause from the audience.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.