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Article Published May 21, 2019
Deep River Farmers Seek Tax Change Clarification from BOS
Karena Garrity

A group of Deep River farmers who also live in town attended the May 14 Board of Selectman Meeting to voice their concerns, open lines of communication, and seek answers. Among their concerns was a document requesting rental property income and expense data sent from the Deep River Assessor’s Office that, the farmers said, only went out to four farms in town.

The farmers, three of whom own horse stables in town, said that this is the very first time they have been asked to fill out this information and they are asking: Why now?

“We have been in town for over 15 years, and we love Deep River,” said Jack Baldwin, whose wife Karen owns Baldwin Stables, “It’s concerning that we never received this document before, it’s a surprise and a really big problem.”

The document cites Connecticut General Statutes Section 12-63c, which it says requires all owners of rental property to annually file the form. The town document states in part, “Under the legislative changes to this statute, we cannot be as flexible as we’ve been in the past, you must file and you must file on-time or you will be penalized.”

The document is due back to the assessor by June 1. If the document is not returned on time, there will be a penalty. The document states that if an extension is needed, a request in writing was due to the assessor by May 1.

The document also asks for annual operating expenses, including fixed expenses and variable expenses including owner’s salary/management fee, as well as net operating income information, boarding fees, sales, feed, bedding, apartment/lodging income, utility charges, and more as well as a 2018 boarding fee list with the name of each boarder.

Farms, which the Town Plan of Conservation and Development calls “a fundamental part of Deep River’s landscape and economy” and directs town policy to “encourage the development of a property tax reduction policy for agricultural properties and buildings as provided for in the State Statutes,” are taxed at lower rates than other commercial uses; this move by the assessor appears to consider four of the town’s farms under a different set of criteria.

Joan Nichols, the Connecticut Farm Bureau director of member relations and community outreach, started the conversation on behalf of the farmers.

“It is the job of the Connecticut Farm Bureau to stay on top of all of the laws pertaining to Connecticut Agriculture in the state and I have never seen this form be issued for farming before,” said Nichols.

She added, “I maintain a good rapport with assessors throughout the state and I reached out to three of them to ask them about this. The assessors I spoke with are from Lebanon, Willimantic, and East Hampton. All of them said they have never used this form for farms and that it is a form, primarily used for rental properties.”

She continued, “There is reference in the letter that it was sent out due to a change in laws and it states that the town can no longer be as flexible as it has been in the past, the only change we could find was in laws passed in 2010, none recently.”

Nichols said the state of Connecticut has gone above and beyond to support agriculture in the state and the farm bureau tries to make sure that municipalities are acting in line with the state’s intentions.

As the meeting progressed, the audience of 35, which included four area Future Farmers of America students from the Mattabeset Chapter of Middletown High School, began to ask questions. However, due to a previously scheduled vacation, Assessor Robin O’Loughlin was not in attendance at the meeting, and the BOS was unsure if it had the authority to make decisions concerning the matter at hand.

First Selectman Angus McDonald explained that he did not have all the answers, but that he would do his best to get back to the informal leader of the group, Kevin Wakelee of Larimar Show Stables, with all the information he could gather and let Wakelee get that information out to the rest of the farmers. In addition, McDonald offered to go and talk with O’Loughlin, with the farmers and be in the room for the discussion, so everyone understands the situation moving forward.

“We will talk about this more and I suspect that not everyone is going to be happy. Maybe that means Robin won’t be happy, or I might not be happy, or Kevin might not be happy, but at least we will all know what is going on.”

McDonald said that he grew up working on his grandfather’s dairy farm. He said he understands and cares about farmers and will be working to gather additional information concerning the matter and look into whether or not the BOS has the authority to grant an extension to the due date of the document causing the question.

Deep River resident and Planning & Zoning Commission member Jane Samuels said, “I would hate to see farmers in town forced out of business because they are inundated with paperwork. I am hoping we can work something out so that Deep River is a horse friendly town.”

Selectman Jim Olson explained that there may, in fact, be nothing the BOS can do to change things this year, due to state statutes and timelines, but this meeting opened up the conversation to rectify the problem moving forward.

“I’m all for opening dialog so we can find a solution that is good for everyone,” said Selectman Duane Gates. “Good for the farmers and good for the town.”