“Money is fast, wisdom is slow,” USDA Certified Farm Planner Linda Rinta said on the pressures of selling land to new developments.
Rinta has over 40 years of farming experience, from cranberry bogs to beach grass, blueberries, Christmas trees, and more. Although cranberry bog land isn’t suitable for building, “seductive offers” are always asking farmers to sell their land. Not only are many farmers pressured to sell their land, but there is also fear that the next generation won’t be able to maintain the land. One opportunity that helps to ensure the present and future of lands such as Rinta’s is applying for Chapter 61 tax reduction programs.
Speaking from experience and from her career, Rinta spoke at the March 19 Mattapoisett Public Library’s meeting on Chapter Lands. On behalf of the farmers who “really do it for the lifestyle,” she gave advice on what it is like to have chapter land.
Not only does having protected land add value to the community, it also provides the landowner with peace of mind by stopping building contractors from constantly knocking on your door, asking you to sell or build on your land. Once your land is registered under Chapter 61, it becomes off limits to build on, which takes the stress off.
The concept of chapter land first began in 1941 for forestry and agricultural preservation. Today, chapter land is divided into three branches: Chapter 61 – Forestry, 61A – Agriculture, and 61B – Open Space/Recreation, which was added in 1979 to preserve golf courses.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), forestry applies to land-growing forest products, including wood, timber, Christmas trees, and other products produced by forest vegetation.
“Landowners receive a property tax reduction in exchange for a commitment to keep their land undeveloped and to manage it for forest products,” says the DCR. Chapter 61 – Forestry is for the long-term development of trees and requires a forest management plan.
DCR states that Chapter 61A is for land-growing agricultural or horticultural products, including fruits, vegetables, ornamental shrubs, timber, animals, and maple syrup. Although there was a comment made from the audience questioning leasing solar farms as potential agriculture, Chapter 61 does not yet recognize the use of solar farming as agriculture.
Chapter 61B, according to the DCR, is for land in open space and/or recreation. Recreational uses must be open to the public or to members of a nonprofit organization, though the landowner may charge a fee for these services, which may include uses such as campsites, skiing, swimming, picnicking, commercial horseback riding. However, there are some ways around the public access requirement – such as a golf course with private memberships that offers a once-a-year public access, typically done in the winter months – while still remaining under the regulation for chapter lands.
If the use of your land changes, it is possible to change your property to a different branch of Chapter 61 without being penalized. Another positive aspect of this tax reduction is that it can be applied to nonprofit organizations such as the Buzzards Bay Coalition.
To qualify for chapter land, you must have 10 acres for Chapter 61 or five acres for 61A and 61B. It should be noted that home/barn structures are considered to be valued at one acre. Chapter 61 must be applied for every 10 years, while 61A and 61B must be applied for annually, for which you might receive friendly reminder calls from your Town to apply before any upcoming deadlines.
This year’s deadline for Chapter 61A and 61B is October 1.
Since the property price and taxes change every year for the area, the cost does fluctuate with sales and will change your values.
According to guest speaker Kathleen Costello, MAA principal assessor, a conveyance tax is not really done, but there could be a roll back tax, which does add up quickly and can seem like a daunting task.
The property will be on file for five years after the application and, once chapter land is granted for your property, a lien will be placed on property for the Town, which will be added to the deed and require a small fee at the town registry.
The property tax is based on its current use instead of its commercial value. It is important that you provide maps detailing the special use plans when you apply for chapter land. It is common for there to be a site visit during the application process to verify the map layout and application. The main purpose of this is to determine the long-term maintenance control of land. Currently, there are 158 parcels under Chapter 61, 37 parcels under 61A, and 80 parcels under 61B.
There are 120-day extensions available. Costello reassuringly stated, “You won’t be taxed out of property and out of farming. Even on a bad year, like this winter. There is help for those bad years; come see me. We don’t want to see you fail. I will work with you, always.”
Joe Perry, DCR service forester, reinforced that the purpose of this tax reduction is to preserve the land. Perry said that there is a “lot of bad information out there.”
“It’s not as confusing as everyone thinks it is,” said Perry. “It really is a great program.” When the audience asked him questions about their personal options with the land and what will be permitted, Perry said, of course, anything that damages the property environmentally, such as dirt bike trails, will not be accepted.
Perry said there are government-funded stewardships with conservation and chapter programs to cover financial costs. He recommends always planning ahead for the future of the land, even in a Chapter 61 (a ten-year renewal plan). It would be prudent to plan ahead if you need to hire a new forester over time.
The final guest speaker was Phil Benjamin from Benjamin Forestry Services, who has over thirty years of experience managing properties. In recent years, he has begun to use new technology, such as GPS and GIS systems, to help survey the land over time and map out where samples have been taken. Common samples that are taken are for recording data on animal habitats, species, number of trees, diseases in trees, growth rings in trees, conditions of soil, and to document where power lines are and to make sure they are cleared as needed, and more.
Before Benjamin uses technology, he simply surveys landowners on what they would like to do with their land. DCR provides a personal survey of questions to see what the best options and wisdom could be offered to you and your land. Benjamin speaks out that the “landowner objectives and getting to know the owner’s interests is the first task. Land is more than just growing trees on their property.”
In closing, while saving money on property taxes can be a financial break for landowners, chapter lands also provide benefits for the area, animal habitat, water and air quality, and privacy. As guest speaker Phil Benjamin of Benjamin Forestry Services said, we must “work with Mother Nature.”
For further information on chapter land for landowners, including property tax calculators, visit www.masswoods.net.
By Bethany Coito