- About Us
Fight for the right to farm: State law's revision threatens land owners
Dozens upon dozens from all over Western Washington crammed into a small auditorium Thursday in Olympia.
Their horses and homes are threatened by the redefining of a state law. Federal Way resident Ken Culliton and his wife, Jan, sat among others in their same situation: The fight for their livelihood.
Seven days a week, the Cullitons work four to five hours feeding, cleaning and caring for 30 horses they board on their 13.5-acre farm in Federal Way at 36530 Pacific Highway.
Jan has lived on the farm all her life; Ken moved onto the farm in 1991, when the horse boarding had already been going on for two years. This is their retirement.
The Cullitons do not own any of the horses. They board the horses for locals who don’t have the space. Included at the Cullitons’ farm are some rescue horses who first came to the farm starved and beaten. A 4-H Club also meets there as well as a man with disabilities who comes to the farm for therapy rides.
Everything was going fine until this year. The Cullitons, along with hundreds across Washington state, got a letter saying their land no longer qualified for the “open space” classification and that as such, their property taxes would increase — dramatically. For the Cullitons, it meant that taxes would more than triple.
“I don’t know how we could stay in business,” Culliton said. “If it gets to that point, I will sell, and there will be 15 homes here.”
The state decided they shouldn’t have qualified for the open space classification. Anyone caught in this situation would be potentially responsible for seven years back taxes and up to a 20 percent penalty.
“They said to consider yourself lucky you got by with it for 20 years,” Culliton said.
In 1968, Washington state voters passed a new taxation code that was put in place for farms to promote keeping open space in urban areas.
The law defined commercial farms to include “Feeding, breeding, managing and selling of livestock, poultry, fur-bearing animals, or honey bees, or any products thereof ...”
For years, the law and classification of many farms had been at the discretion of the county assessor’s office. However, the state recently updated the law and made it uniform across the state. The state decided that for a farm to qualify, it must meet all of the demands: The feeding, the breeding, the managing and the selling. This put hundreds of farms in peril. Many farms do not breed animals at the farm; livestock is often bought at a young age and raised on the farm. This includes cattle, pigs, chicken and horses.
The Cullitons’ farm, which only boards horses, qualifying them under every “demand” except the breeding, no longer qualified for open space classification. Their only option, they were told, was to buy a mare and a stallion and start breeding.
“We don’t want the horse business to turn into puppy mills,” Ken Culliton said. “But that’s what will happen if people are forced to breed.”
The impact of the law could be much more far-reaching then just the property owners involved. Many boarding or training facilities will be forced to either close or send their rents sky high to cover the additional costs.
Jeannette Parrett, who boards at the Cullitons’ farm, is already worried about what she may have to do. Parrett brought her horse, a rescue horse, to the farm two years ago.
“They treat the horses like their own,” Parrett said. “They’ve dedicated themselves. They have a lot of experience. They were a huge help to me in getting her back in shape.”
If the Cullitons are forced to sell the farm, Parrett said she and her husband may even have to resort to moving to a place with their own land.
“That’s a huge life change,” she added.
For now, the law is under review by the Department of Revenue, and nothing will be officially decided for a few more months. However, that in itself is problematic for many of the farmers because the local assessor’s offices are demanding the payments soon, in many cases before the middle of December.
The Cullitons’ story is a familiar one to Ken Starr, who knows exactly what they are going through.
Starr got a notice in the mail from the King County Assessor’s office, saying that his Woodinville farm was no longer eligible for the tax break — and that he would be responsible for the back taxes and the increase.
“At first I thought it was just us,” Starr said. “Then I learned we were not alone. We were really part of a wide group faced with it.”
Starr and others formed the Save Washington Horse Farms group and began planning their defense.
Starr, the Cullitons and many others began collecting signatures, contacting legislators and planning the first hearing on the matter at the Capital Complex in Olympia.
The outrage of hundreds of farmers — over what may cause many to lose their farms and their homes — brought them to Olympia on Nov. 13 for a hearing conducted by the Department of Revenue.
They spilled out into the hallways, signing up to give their story and let the state know of their anger.
“We’re not attempting to make the rule more restrictive,” said Brad Flahenty, Department of Revenue associate director for the Division of Property Taxes. He began the discussion attempting to diffuse the worry about breeding: “We’re not trying to add anything. If anything we are trying to remove breeding.”
Rumblings and comments from the crowd expressed views that the Department of Revenue and the county assessors are not aligned. Many complained that they had been told by county assessor offices that breeding was now required — and that there were no loopholes or wiggle room.
One assessor from Yakima suggested to those in the room to appeal any assessor’s ruling to the Board of Equalization. This is a route that many may be forced to take, as property owners would not have to pay any of the new taxes until the ruling comes down from the board.
Story after story flowed forth as farmers of all kinds told of their new struggle, and how ridiculous they found the new interpretation.
The department will listen again in Yakima for the second part of the hearing for those farmers on the east side of the Cascade Mountains.
So for now, all the farmers can do is wait. But they won’t be waiting quietly.
Contact Kyra Low: firstname.lastname@example.org