Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson got an $11,000 a year property tax break Jan. 7 after the Sarpy County Board granted a coveted exemption to 92 heavily wooded acres he owns in western Sarpy County.
The board voted 3-1 to declare Nelson’s 92 acres along the Platte River are used primarily for agricultural or horticultural purposes and should therefore be assessed as agricultural land.
That designation, which County Assessor Dan Pittman said is being sought by an increasing number of landowners, requires a lower tax rate to be imposed than if the land were valued at its full commercial value.
In Nelson’s case it is the difference between paying $12,700 a year and paying $1,700 a year.
Pittman, who expressed reluctance to reinstate the tax break, which he revoked last month, said his hands were tied by state law.
He said photographs presented by Nelson attorney Pat Sullivan showing logging activity as well as several grazing goats, sheep and horses constituted “very thin” evidence the land’s primary use is agricultural, but that it is sufficient under current state law to merit the lower rate.
He said the state has weakened requirements to the point where an increasing number of people are claiming an agricultural exemption even if they have just a few goats grazing on a large acreage.
“The door has been thrown wide open,” he said. “ It wasn’t intended for that, but that’s where we’re at right now. We need some help from the law. We need to tighten it up like it was in the ’80s.”
Commissioner Don Kelly dismissed Sullivan’s photographs.
“Pretty soon we’re going to have everybody showing up at the assessor’s office with a picture of a goat asking for special valuation,” he said.
Kelly said the issue first arose as a political controversy in 2006 when Nelson, a Democrat, sought a second term in the U.S. Senate. His political opponents that year charged Nelson was disguising the land’s primary use as a hunting lodge with a veneer of agricultural use.
But the County Board, then as now, deemed the evidence of agricultural use sufficient to grant the exemption, and the exemption stood until Pittman revoked it in December.
Pittman said neither he nor his deputies, who had monitored the property from various locations, saw evidence of agricultural activity and so he revoked the exemption until seeing evidence to the contrary.
He said Sullivan had provided that evidence.
Sullivan presented contracts signed by Nelson permitting commercial logging on his land, as well as contracts allowing horses, sheep and goats to graze.
He also presented checks showing that Nelson was paid by the contractors, and invoices showing expenses on Nelson’s part.
Sullivan conceded Nelson had not invested much in the four years since he received the exemption, and that his earnings from the land have been minimal.
But a poor return does not change the fact that the land’s primary use is agribusiness, Sullivan said.
“Not to put down my client, but you’re not penalized under special valuation for being a poor farmer or horticulturalist,” Sullivan said. “He bought 15 sheep, and was raising 15 sheep, and he lost 13 of them, mostly due to predators.”
He said coyotes had decimated the herd, but that Nelson is planning to restock it in the spring and to put defensive measures in place.
Sullivan said Nelson was being victimized because his crop – trees – is not as visible as row crops like corn and beans.
“A tree is specifically described in statutes as an agricultural product, and I think we’ve run into a little bit of a foul here because we don’t look like a row crop,” he said.
But Kelly remained unconvinced.
“To show up here with a picture of a goat, and a couple of canceled checks for meager amounts over the course of four years is hardly validation for an active agribusiness venture,” he said. “I just find this evidence very underwhelming, and that’s probably the understatement of the year.”
The board voted 3-1, with Kelly opposed, to grant the exemption.
Commissioner Jim Warren, in whose district Nelson’s land sits, was absent.