By SANDRA POSSINGUEST COLUMNIST, SEATTLE TIMES
Since 1968, the Department of Revenue has recognized that agricultural property kept rural and maintained for horse pasturing and boarding qualifies as "commercial agricultural."
Now, suddenly and arbitrarily, the state threatens to rescind this designation, which would force the sale and development of much protected agricultural land and the loss of previously rural lifestyles and opportunities.
It isn't clear why the state is moving at this time to reinterpret what has been a settled matter for literally decades; namely, that horse boarding and pasturage warrants inclusion as "commercial agricultural."
Perhaps it is simple lust for increased revenue at a time of economic downturn. But decimating Washington's horse farms would greatly injure the state's economy at an already delicate time; moreover, forcing the sale and development of agricultural land goes counter to the expressed desire of the people of Washington to maintain rural character while preserving natural habitats.
Whatever its underlying motivation, the Department of Revenue now claims that "commercial agricultural" designation requires sale of a tangible product, and that horse boarding is recreational, not agricultural. However, thousands of acres in Washington are maintained in rural agricultural condition because horse facilities provide a commercial "equine" product, just as free-range cattle herds provide a "dairy" product.
In addition, state law RCW 7.48.310 clearly defines "farm products" as "livestock, including breeding, grazing and recreational equine use." To get around that obstacle, the Department of Revenue has decreed that breeding and grazing both must occur -- thereby implicitly approving the equivalent of equine "puppy mills" while punishing responsible horse people who seek to limit the overproduction of animals.
Even more absurd, the department also maintains that caring for horses does not constitute animal husbandry and -- incredible -- that horses are not livestock. It would be paradoxical if officials adopted such a narrow, double-speak interpretation of the law that it acted against history and the expressed desire of the people of Washington, not to mention common sense.
In a letter to state Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, Cindi Holmstrom, director of the Department of Revenue, said interested parties would be given "the opportunity to provide input regarding the definition of commercial agricultural purposes" at a meeting at 10 a.m. Nov. 13 in the General Administration Auditorium, Olympia, 210 11th Ave. S.W. I encourage all interested parties to attend.
But be warned: In her letter to Rolfes, Holmstrom went on to note, "Our goal is to clearly identify activities that are agricultural in nature, such as raising and selling pigs, while excluding activities that are not agricultural, such as boarding horses and providing riding lessons." It sounds like her mind is made up.
Lewis Carroll's account of the trial of the Knave of Hearts is infamous for the Queen's dictum, "Sentence first, verdict afterward." That is: Impose punishment right away, without worrying about guilt or innocence.
In its war against horse boarding, pasturing and the commercial agricultural practices that support it, the Department of Revenue seems poised to enter a kind of dystopian Wonderland. Like the Red Queen, the department is eager to impose sentence; don't bother them with logic, history, clear dictionary definitions, the obvious intent of state tax policies or the facts.
Sandra Possin lives in Seattle; SaveWashingtonHorseFarms.org.
STATE OF WASHINGTON
DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE
Property Tax Division
P O Box 47471 ¨ Olympia, Washington 98504-7471 ¨ (360) 570-5900 ¨ Fax (360) 586-7602
October 15, 2008
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Brad Flaherty, Assistant Director
Property Tax Division
SUBJECT: STAKEHOLDER MEETING TO REVIEW OPEN SPACE TAXATION
ACT DEFINITION (WAC 458-30-200)
The Department of Revenue wants to acknowledge recent concerns and confusion about the
definition of “commercial agricultural purposes” as defined in WAC 458-30-200 and is
beginning a stakeholder process to consider changes to the rule.
Definition to be reviewed
The Legislature enacted chapter 84.34 RCW, the Open Space Taxation Act, in 1970, and the
Department adopted rules (chapter 458-30 WAC) to implement and administer this program in
1971. In 1988, the original rules were repealed and new rules adopted, including WAC 458-30-
200, which defines “commercial agricultural purposes,” in pertinent part, as the:
(i) Raising, harvesting, and selling lawful crops;
(ii) Feeding, breeding, managing, and selling of livestock, poultry, fur-bearing
animals, or honey bees, or any products thereof;
(iii) Dairying or selling of dairy products;
(iv) Animal husbandry;
(vi) Horticulture; or
(vii) Participating in a government-funded crop reduction or acreage set-aside
Except for the inclusion of the cultivation of Christmas trees and certain short-rotation
hardwoods, the definition of “commercial agricultural purposes” has remained virtually
unchanged since at least 1988. It is time to give the definition a thorough review to make sure it
makes sense in light of current agricultural practices and other current use provisions.
Specific issues to be addressed
We are aware of two specific issues that need to be covered. Persons who purchase calves or
piglets in the Spring, raise them over the Summer, and sell them in the late Fall want this activity
to be included in the definition of “commercial agricultural purposes.” The eligibility of horse
boarding also needs to be addressed. You may know of other issues we need to consider.
First stakeholder meeting scheduled
Our initial stakeholder meeting to consider possible rule changes will be held at 1025 Union
Avenue SE, Olympia, WA 98504, 4th Floor Executive Conference Room, on Thursday,
November 13, from 10:00 a.m. to noon. We invite you and others you may know who have an
interest in clarifying this rule to join us in a discussion. Space is limited so please confirm your
attendance by responding to the e-mail address below. Based on the issues raised and interest
shown at this meeting, additional meetings may be planned, including meetings throughout the
state as appropriate.
If you have any additional questions or would like more information about the meeting, please
contact Marilou Rickert in the Department’s Interpretations and Technical Advice Division at
(360) 570-6115 or by e-mail at MarilouR@DOR.WA.GOV.