The catalogue of tax favored farm property on the Vineyard

A complaint lodged with the West Tisbury zoning board of appeals about organized dirt-bike activity at a dirt-bike track on the Nip n’ Tuck Farm off State Road has led to questions about how the town and state monitors and enforces Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (APR) intended to protect farmland from development.

Following complaints by neighbors, town zoning inspector Ernie Mendenhall determined that the noise created by the use of dirt bikes on Nip ‘n Tuck Farm did not violate town bylaws. Neighbors appealed his decision to the zoning board of appeals (ZBA).

At a ZBA hearing on January 19, opponents Louisa Williams and Chris Brooks said that the operation of a dirt-bike track may violate the APR agreement the Fisher family entered into in 1986, when it sold a restriction over 49 acres of its property to the state Department of Agriculture (DOA).

The DOA, West Tisbury selectmen, and the town conservation commission (ConCom) signed the Fisher Farm APR. The funding included $30,000 from the town of West Tisbury, $25,000 from the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) and $420,000 from the state. The Fishers retained the development rights to 4.17 acres of their property, on which several buildings including their home are located.

Following the ZBA hearing, the Fishers decided voluntarily to shut the track down. On February 10 the ZBA, acting on the advice of town counsel Ron Rappaport, determined that the activity violated town bylaws and instructed Mr. Mendenhall to issue a cease and desist order.

However, the larger question remains — of who is responsible for monitoring and enforcing APR restrictions on the Fisher farm and other properties throughout town.

West Tisbury selectmen sought an opinion about the Fisher farm from the DOA. Representatives of the DOA are expected to visit the farm and other properties on Wednesday, February 16.

In a telephone interview, Richard Knabel, chairman of the town selectmen, said, “The question is, is anybody watching what is happening out there? And the answer is that no, no one is.”

Two options

“There are not a lot of tools available for protecting agricultural lands, but at least we have two,” Brendan O’Neil, Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) executive director, told The Times.

Mr. O’Neil referred to the permanent sale of development rights under an APR (sometimes referred to as Massachusetts’ General Law chapter 184) and also the MGL chapter 61A statute that allows for the temporary reduction in property taxes on agricultural or horticultural lands that meet certain qualifications.

Farm property may be placed in one or both programs; property owners apply to the state for the designation(s), although local towns must submit the property owner’s request to the DOA.

Agricultural or horticultural land owners wishing to place property in the 61A program must have at least five acres used primarily and directly for raising animals, for the purpose of selling farm animals or a product derived from such animals, according to the state statute. Horticultural land must be used for raising fruits, vegetables for human or animal consumption. Land used to grow nursery and greenhouse products for sale may also qualify for the program.

Agricultural or horticultural property placed voluntarily in the 61A program may be taken out of the program by the farm owner at any time. The assessors may also remove a property from the 61A program if and when farm production fails to meet the promised agricultural or horticultural yields.

When property leaves the 61A program, local property tax penalties may be assessed based on the difference between the market-based tax rate and the program tax rates in years when the property was in the program.

The permanent APR program that began in 1980 typically involves the purchase of property development rights, using a combination of state and local town funds. The property owner must initially show that the property has been actively farmed in two previous years and submit ownership and tax documents. Once admitted to the APR program, the property is annually assessed at a reduced property tax rate.

West Tisbury count

According to West Tisbury assessor Kristina West, there are eight farm properties currently in the 61A program. Ms. West said that the per-acre valuation is based on farm value, not market value. The town assessment is generally one percent or less of the full market value of the land.

Property owners with a residence are assessed at full value only on the first three acres, the minimum residential lot size zoning allows.

There are four farms in the chapter 132 APR farm program: Nip n’ Tuck Farm; a 20-acre farm owned by William and Harriet Hickie and Donald Mills off State Road; the 55-acre Whiting farm property owned by Allen, Daniel and Prudence Whiting; and a small parcel, owned by the Mass Farm Land Trust, that DOA refers to as the Greene property.

According to Ms. West, the Fishers’ 49.16 acres in the APR program are currently assessed at $152,200. They pay a total of $720 annually in property taxes on that acreage.

West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell, a town assessor from 2006 to 2010, described the benefits to the town of APRs and 61A designations.

“The Whiting and Fisher properties are great examples for the benefit of these programs,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “What a pleasure to have that as the look of your town. These restrictions are helping to keep local farming sustainable, particularly in these times of ‘living local’ and that is an important thing.”

Restrictions and supervision

While each property owner in the APR program signs a unique document, there are commonalities that APR agreements share, according to the DOA. Land use is restricted to agriculture including crops and/or animals, and the only building on the land must be to support agriculture activities.

APR program coordinator Ronald Hall told The Times, “Supervision is an area that the department is seeking to improve upon.”

DOA legal affairs spokesman William Gillmeister told The Times, “We have many, many acres in the program across the state and have a set of priorities so we do not get out to see what is happening on any formal schedule.”

Responsibility for supervision is also shared with local municipalities, if a local community is party to the original APR agreement with the landowner.

Mr. Hall said if an abutter wishes to complain about a specific property under the auspices of the DOA, he may contact the state. The DOA will determine if the APR is under its stewardship, review the agreement, review existing rules and regulations of the DOA, make a site visit and/or secure aerial photographs to ensure that only the permitted activities are being undertaken.

If it is determined that the property is in violation of the APR agreement, the property owner will be notified that the activity cannot be continued. Until DOA received inquiries regarding the use of the Fisher property for dirt bike racing, the DOA was unaware of any complaints on Martha’s Vineyard.

Town boards of assessors supervise the 61A program. Annually, farm owners must document that a property has produced the agricultural yield expected.

In West Tisbury, the town assessors make an annual site visit to each property in the 61A program to document compliance.

The Island Picture

Chris Seidel, Martha’s Vineyard Commission cartographer, told The Times that 2008 assessors records, the latest she could provide The Times, indicate that 66 parcels of farm land totaling 1,048 acres are voluntarily in the 61A program.

By town, the breakdown is: Chilmark, eight parcels, 323 acres; Edgartown, 12 parcels, 44 acres; Oak Bluffs, four parcels, 46 acres; Tisbury, 18 parcels, 159 acres; and West Tisbury, 24 parcels, 475 acres. Aquinnah has no property in the 61A program.

There are 50 parcels totaling 716 acres under APRs, she said. That number includes 38 parcels in the permanent APR program for agricultural properties and 12 parcels totaling 118 acres in a combined conservation and agriculture preservation (CAPR) permanent program.

By town the total is: Chilmark, 8 (170 acres); Edgartown, 5 (46 acres); Oak Bluffs, 1 parcel (10 acres); Tisbury, 5 parcels (62 acres); and West Tisbury, 19 parcels (310 acres). Chilmark also has five parcels totaling 42 acres in the combined CAPR program. West Tisbury has seven parcels totaling 76 acres.