State cuts horse farmers a break

Ken Culliton stands in front of a sign for his farm, KCJ Stables in Federal Way. Culliton, along with many small farmers in Washington, could lose their tax status and farms if the state continues with its plan. - Mirror file photo
Ken Culliton stands in front of a sign for his farm, KCJ Stables in Federal Way. Culliton, along with many small farmers in Washington, could lose their tax status and farms if the state continues with its plan.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

Chalk one up for the little guy — farm owners can breathe a bit easier.

The state Department of Revenue (DOR) issued a memo to all county assessors telling them to “take no enforcement or collection action” on farmers who faced a reclassification of their land and tax status.

The ruling from the DOR came just a day after hundreds of Washington farmers crowded into a meeting Nov. 13 in Olympia to voice their anger over the redefining of a law.

The DOR will look at what defines farming in today’s society and will make the rules more inclusive for common practices today, including farms where young animals — such as calves, piglets and chickens — are bought in the spring, fed and grown throughout the summer, then sold in the fall.

“What we need here is your help,” Brad Flaherty, assistant director of property tax division, said to the crowd last Thursday. “We need to know what farming is. That’s part of why you’re here.”

A tax exemption created in 1968 allows farms to qualify as an open space. For years, the enforcement of who or what was a farm was left largely up to counties.

Under question is what defines a farm in the current day. This year the state decided to regulate the process, which resulted in many farmers learning that their land no longer qualified. Not only would they be responsible for higher taxes, in some cases triple what they used to pay, but also up to seven years in back taxes and a 20 percent penalty. Any farm that did not meet the “feeding, breeding, managing and selling of livestock” was subject to the change.

In years past, farmers were eligible for the open space exemption if they met at least one of the requirements. This year, however, the assessor’s offices began a practice of stricter interpretation, mandating farmers meet all requirements.

Farmers were told that they would have just a few weeks to come up with the funds. For a majority of these farmers, that meant the funds must be paid before the state finished new wording of the exemption — which the state is working on right now. Farmers will not have to pay until the new law becomes final in a few months, according to the DOR.

Federal Way farmers

The DOR is looking at farms such as the one owned by Federal Way residents Ken and Jan Culliton.

The Cullitons’ 13-acre horse boarding farm was in danger of losing its open space classification, which would then force the Cullitons to sell. This year, the Cullitons were informed that their farm, which has been boarding horses under the open space law for 20 years, no longer met the requirement — and unless they started breeding horses at their farm, they would have to pay triple their taxes.

The Cullitons were among nearly 150 people who commented at the meeting last Thursday in Olympia with the DOR. Several different farmers asked for an emergency ruling to stop the assessors from charging them.

The DOR is working quickly to update the definition of the farms that qualify for the open space exemption, according to the DOR memo to assessors.

“We are aware of the timelines faced by your office and a number of property owners as we work toward a resolution. Therefore we are working as quickly as possible to review information and provide guidance that will include the issuance of an emergency rule before the end of December,” the memo stated.

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