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State's horse farmers find fast tax relief

Horse boarders and other farmers can rest a bit easier after an emergency ruling allowed them to keep their tax status.

The Department of Revenue issued an emergency ruling in the classification of farm and agricultural land, which faced stricter guidelines this year, causing many farmers to lose their open space tax break.

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 demands in regards to feeding, breeding, managing and 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.

Ken and Jan Culliton, who board horses at their 13-acre Federal Way farm, were under peril of losing their farm due to the tax increases. The Cullitons have been boarding horses at the farm since the late 1980s and it is now their their full-time job.

The change in the definition of open space caused many farmers to suddenly receive notices stating that not only were they losing their open space tax status, which allowed for lower taxes, but they may also be required to pay up to seven years' worth in back taxes.

This upset farmers. They began to fight back and show up en masse to meetings on the topic with the Department of Revenue, fighting for their right to be considered a farm.

Their words made a difference. The department quickly responded with a stop order to all county assessors preventing the collection of taxes and back taxes.

On Dec. 31, the DOR also issued an emergency ruling, which eliminated the breeding requirement. Also the sale of pasture-horse boarding is also now allowed.

The emergency rule is effective for 120 days and can be renewed until a permanent rule is adopted. The Department of Revenue has stated that it intends to begin the permanent rule process as soon as possible in 2009.

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