, Salem, MA


June 25, 2013

Our view: When is a backyard a farm?

It’s easy to see why some Hamilton selectmen are looking askance at the idea that much of the magnificent, 86-acre Pirie property on Bay Road will continue to be taxed at a lower rate than its neighbors.

After all, what is now Aquila Farm will be subdivided and marketed as six “large estate parcels” — a far cry from the kind of family farms that taxpayers intended to help when these agricultural discounts were enacted.

The idea behind the law was that assessing working farms at lower rates than other property would protect farmers who were being forced to sell land to pay rising property taxes. At the same time, communities would have the benefit of that open space, maintaining, in many cases, their rural character.

But does anyone think that farmers will be buying these large estates?

Not Marc Johnson, chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen, who told reporter Jonathan Phelps, “These will be backyards. They will not be operating these properties as a farm in any sense of the word.”

And not Selectman Jennifer Scuteri, who said, “The legislation was intended to protect and preserve local farms, not the backyards of McMansions.”

The developer isn’t talking. All we know is that six lots will be sold to individual builders and that the developer estimates 70 percent of the property will continue getting tax breaks as agricultural property. On these “equestrian-themed” estates, that presumably means the owners will be in the business of raising and selling horses.

The town is not helpless, however. Property owners have to apply for these tax breaks every year to the local Board of Assessors. The owners must show that the property is primarily used for raising animals or growing crops, and that the owner has sales of at least $500 a year by selling the animals raised there or products derived from those animals.

It will be up to assessors to determine whether the new owners meet that criteria, and it’s to be expected that they will take a very close look when those applications come in to determine whether new owners truly deserve to pay less than everyone else.

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