By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- A college agriculture instructor told the Senate Ag Committee that his students would benefit if the state levels the playing field for small farms.
The Open Space Taxation Act allows for current use valuation for farms 20 acres and larger, including the land under the farmer's residence and housing for farm employees. For parcels smaller than 20 acres, the 1 acre where the house is situated is valued at fair market value.
Senate Bill 5327 would value the entire farm at current use, regardless of size.
Dave Muehleisen said his sustainable ag program is the second most popular program at Evergreen State College.
"(The students') hope is to farm someplace, and many succeed at that," he said. "I see this as a jobs bill."
Heather Hansen, representing the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association, said the bill would affect only a small handful of her members, "but it's important to them."
Growing high-value crops in high-value areas is expensive, she said, and a simple change in taxation could keep small nurseries alive.
E.J. Zita, who is a farmer and member of the Thurston County Agricultural Advisory Board, told the committee that taxes are her biggest expense and that a few hundred dollars that the proposal would provide is a big percentage of her budget.
Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, said she wrote the bill out of concern for small farms in areas of high growth. The growing interest in fresh, local food gives them a small farms a chance to succeed, and reducing the property tax for the home site reduces the cost of doing business.
She added that the structures would still be taxed at fair market value.
Opposing the change was Lewis County Assessor Dianne Dorey, who said the change would shift $7.5 million to other properties and would be difficult to administer in small counties.
Monty Cobb, of the Washington Association of County Officials, said the move would take $500 million of assessed value off tax rolls. He said that changing the dollar figure would work better. Supporting the change, Thurston County Assessor Steve Drew said it would encourage the preservation of ag land and ag enterprise.
Jim Jesernig, speaking for the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, said his industry is "adamantly opposed" to SB5327 because aquaculture is specifically excluded from the bill. He urged that an amendment change that.