Taxing and Untaxing Land
This article was originally published in State Tax Notes, a journal by Tax Analysts, on September 5, 2005.
The debate over appropriate property tax treatment of farmland touches on many complex issues: equitable distribution of the tax burden; assistance to family farmers in difficult financial straits; promotion of agriculture as a source of production, a landscape amenity, and a way of life; and land use planning to avoid sprawl and protect open space.
Because those goals sometimes conflict, tax and land policies addressing them often have contradictory elements as well. There is also much uncertainty as to whether specific policies, such as preferential property taxes, actually help achieve larger goals, such as long-term preservation of farmland.
Nearly a half-century of experience with agricultural taxes based on use value rather than market value provides a vantage point from which to consider these controversies. Wisconsin, the most recent state to adopt use value taxation, offers some particularly provocative lessons in this regard.