County appraiser’s land surveys court controversy

09/23/2013 10:14 AM

09/23/2013 3:43 PM

A new survey sent to some owners of agricultural property in Johnson County is meant to get a more accurate picture of the use of the land for tax purposes, says County Appraiser Paul Welcome.

Some 6,000 landowners received a questionnaire this year asking for a detailed description of how their agricultural property is used. The survey asked for the date of last harvest, type of crop and documentation of lease and tenant information, among other things. The results will be used, along with aerial images and inspections, to decide how the land will be classified for tax purposes.

In sending the surveys, Johnson County is following the lead of Douglas, Miami and Sedgwick counties, which have used similar questionnaires for the past couple of years, Welcome said.

Inaccurately classified land can end up costing the county in lost revenue. A lot in a future subdivision could have a market value of $30,000. With an agricultural classification, it may be worth only $10, which would be a difference of $350 to $400 in taxes paid.

But Welcome said the surveys are not an attempt to improve the county’s bottom line. As county appraiser, Welcome said he is only concerned that the classification is accurate.

“It’s a best practices issue for us,” Welcome said.

There are 13,000 parcels of land in the county classified as agricultural, he said. But the surveys were only sent to owners of land that had been platted, as it would be if a subdivision were going in. Surveying the platted land allows the county to put the focus on questionable property, he said. The surveys are meant to supplement aerial photography and staff inspections that the county has been using for years, he said.

The surveys were sent in August and have an Oct. 15 deadline. Responding is voluntary, he said, but the letter warns that a landowner who fails to do so runs the risk of a classification change from agricultural to fair market value.

The appraiser’s office has received more than 50 calls and an increase in visitors since the surveys went out, Welcome said.

“The vast majority have been very positive that what we’re trying to do is correct,” Welcome said.

The survey has not been popular with everyone, however. Some have grumbled that the questionnaire is intrusive and an example of government overreach.

Agricultural appraisal has been a touchy issue in Johnson County because of the way it has been used by developers. Last year, The Star revealed that Wal-Mart paid just $53 on a 20-acre tract of land it bought with plans to develop it into a new store. That land already had streetlights and roads, but was claimed as agricultural for tax purposes.

In fact, a former Olathe mayor, Doug Knop, is now a property tax consultant who is advising clients to spread a few seeds around every fall to get an agricultural classification.

Such advice has held up in Kansas courts. The legal requirements for agricultural use are minimal. Seeds don’t necessarily have to sprout, for instance.

Welcome said the extra information will be kept confidential, in keeping with state law, and will be help the appraiser staff be more efficient and accurate.

“I don’t care about the tax dollars. All I care about is classification” and its accuracy, he said.

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