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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Our Open Space Program Needs More Scrutiny - Part Two

I've started this series by telling you that our open space program in Northampton County needs more scrutiny. Locally, land preservation boards like the one in Williams Township consist of the very people who want handouts. That needs to change. Even the County's Environmental Advisory Board is so packed with environmentalists that it fails to look at open space applications more critically. They've ignored state regulations requiring that appraisers determine the increase in value of a property that has been carved out of a preserved tract. This has resulted in higher appraisals than are merited. But the biggest mistake of all is one that is costing everyone in this County money. And it's happening illegally.

The person who first noticed this problem is a Williams Township farmer named Halden Ballek. He is more comfortable on his tractor than with the suits in a meeting room. He went to Vince Foglia with his concerns, and together, they have forced some changes  But they have miles to go before they sleep.

Open Space advocates had argued that getting a handout from the government for development rights is not enough. Getting a preferential assessment under which 90% of your property taxes are eliminated is not enough either. They wanted more. And they got it in the form of an outright tax freeze from the land of midnight payraises. A Millage Freeze Law (Act 4) was adopted in 2006 under which there could never be a tax increase in preserved property. Not ever. But in order to be effective, it would have to be approved by every municipality and school district, as well as the County. Otherwise, Nazareth and Wilson taxpayers could see their own taxes go up while some gazillionare in Williams Township pays a pittance. In other words, and as required by the Pa. Constitution,* taxes must be uniform.  

Northampton County adopted a law that imposed a millage freeze on preserved parties, but the language of its own ordinance makes clear that, before taking effect, every other taxing district in the County had to approve it, too. Some did. Some have not done anything.  Despite this failure, the County imposed a millage freeze on what are now about 240 preserved properties. When taxes went up this year, their taxes remained frozen at the lower rate, and without the consent of the taxing districts. in effect, people of limited means in Glendon and West Easton are now funding the land barons.

Foglia has had several meetings with the County over this issue, and so far, has got nowhere. The matter is supposedly now in Phil Lauer's hands. He is the Council Solicitor and is also the very Williams Township lawyer who at the last Council meeting spoke highly of preserving land in Williams. While Lauer ponders the merits of Foglia's argument, the County has caved on a subissue.

When properties are preserved, there is usually a homestead and sometimes other tracts that are excepted out. Those properties were receiving the low taxes and the millage freeze. The County has agreed they must be taxed at their fair market value, and has designated X and F parcels of lands receiving favorable taxation and those that don't.

According to Foglia, even with these news assessments, the taxes are artificially low.

I'll continue this story on Wednesday.
* Pa. Const., Article VIII, Section 1


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the millage freeze takes place on a municipality by municipality basis. The county, the town, and the school district must all agree to the freeze. If any one of the three says "no", there is no freeze in that municipality. Never heard that every single municipality in the county has to agree to a millage freeze - don't know why it would be written that way, because you rarely get everyone to agree.

Not all towns even have preservation boards, yet they preserve land. Are you implying that the system is rife with people taking advantage of the system, based on just Williams Twp? Can you give examples of towns other than Williams where insiders on the preservation board allegedly got preferential treatment? What about some of the towns with the largest amount of preserved land, like Upper Mt Bethel, Lower Mt Bethel, Plainfield, Moore? Are select residents of these towns feeding at the public trough due to some unseen corruption?

You piece appears to be focused on one town, where abuses of the system may have taken place. In our town, none of this crap goes on. And there are valid natural areas that deserve preservation - not everyone is trying to game the system as a reader may infer, by splitting off a lavish stone structure from the preserved land. Over a thousand acres was just preserved on the Blue Mountain. In most cases, the house split off is a modest residence.

Bernie O'Hare said...

12:20, what I've seen in Williams is more than enough to cause concern. Your argument is akin to the General speaking to the President in Dr. Strangelove. It is time to step back and re-assess. My argument is that for a mileage freeze to be consistent with the uniformity clause, county law and state law, every taxing district in the county must agree. Moreover, if it were not for Foglia and Ballek, over 200 preserved properties would be improperly assessed, no matter how you read the mill age freeze. I have comments from readers in L Scn that suggest problems there. I am concerned about Lower and Upper Mt Bethel. I intend to look at them all, but I find your dismissal of s clear abuse in Williams to be somewhat shocking. Either you want good government or you don't.

Anonymous said...

I really don't think people understand that the problem in Williams is not just a Williams issue. It is an issue that affects the pocketbook of all people in this county. When you have properties in Williams where the assessment is artificially low, that means those properties aren't paying their fair share of all taxes based on that assessment. That means the others in Northampton County are absorbing the 'cost' of that artificially low assessment.

And let's just assume you're a family in Wilson in a double. If these assessments aren't done right, you'd be absorbing the artificially low assessments for not only county, but the Wilson Area school taxes. That's serious money, folks. People should be outraged that this cr&p is going on. It's disgusting and sickening to think that people would have to work harder to keep up on the taxes on their modest home, all while subsidizing the Glovas mansion and the others (especially Heindel) who greedily grabbed state, county and township money. But the land preservation windfall wasn't enough. They appear to have no problem (and perhaps encouraged?) the low assessment with not a fig of concern for the burden this places on families in Wilson or Avona or Glendon.

Ron Beitler said...

Anon 6:25 - What do you mean by fair share? Farmland is one of the few land uses that actually pays for itself. Even with the tax freeze. It's a program we have in Lower Macungie and I support it. My understanding was the same as anon 12:20. That 3 local taxing bodies had to agree. Just like a TIF. County, SD and muni. Is it something different county to county or state law?

To me 'fair share' relating to property taxes for municipal purposes relates to the cost of municipal service liabilities created by different land use patterns. This can be determined by cost of community service studies (COCS). I always saw the uniformity clause as a barrier to more fairly applying the property tax so that is relates more closely to actual impacts.

Things like homestead act and tax freeze are work arounds. But we're stuck in a system where arbitrary assessments determine your tax burden. Arbitrary in that it has nothing to do with impacts or liabilities generated. If you own a house and build a new deck on your home you get throttled cause the assessments are weighted towards building improvements. How is that fair? Assessments and tax burden should be based on impact and land consumption. Things that relate to taxes. Things being paid for by taxes.

Back to farms...for every dollar of tax money a farm generates it requires a dime or nickel in services. (services = infrastructure + stormwater facilities and maintenance, public safety, roads, recreation etc.) It's understood by most that some fundamental disparities exist between different land use patterns. And because of it you need to balance the tax base. Residential land development costs us on muni level but when you factor in SD's its even more pronounced. With SD's factored in it's a clip of costing us about .15 cents to a quarter per dollar of revenue.

Once you have enough space for people to live or you have enough of one type of housing you need to seek balance. So if your weighted too heavily one direction preservation of a tract that would otherwise be developed is a fundamental good thing for the tax base. Even if you get there with a freeze. Alternative is zone the land to something more productive like mixed use, neighborhood commercial or denser variations of strip malls like the promenade so long as the infrastructure already exists then cash in with some value.

Ron Beitler said...

Couple more points: Sorry so long but this is a topic I spend most of my time thinking about cause I believe Lower Mac has a fundamentally in-balanced tax base. And while we can build our way out of it for now living off one time revenue injections eventually we will run out of land. Then we have to face reality.

1. I try to only look exclusively at the muni end. Because factoring in the SD end muddles everything. Using land use decisions as band-aids (chasing ratables) only postpones inevitable needed funding reform. It's Rob Peter (muni) to pay Paul (SD). But considering the current broke system we're stuck with for now the disparity gets even worse when you lump in SD funding. Many issues go away or become less pronounced if and when we get a more fair and equitable school funding formula with more stable and predictable state contributions. That might be coming this budget cycle. But I won't hold my breathe.

2. Here in the Lehigh Valley we have an X-factor and existing COCS studies don't exist to justify them. That is warehouses. The numbers and studies don't exist because no where else in the state is there the concentration that we have. Based on my experience they are massive net losers financially. But we need to demonstrate it with a county wide study. With existing comparisons...there really is nothing that compares. Nothing even close to the extreme low level jobs/acre or revenue/acre vs. liabilities created. So yes, in Lower Mac (even though the ship has sailed) a tax freeze on large properties to avoid more warehouses would have been desirable 10 years ago. I acknowledge our geography meant we were always going to get pressure for these uses. But I fear we've gone overboard. And muni's who chased them to fund SD's were taking a short-sighted approach.

3. The Lehigh Valley needs a COCS study. (Hello LVPC!!). And if LVPC doesn't undertake the task local muni's should. Esp before or during comprehensive zoning re-writes. If you aren't basing your zoning map on financial productivity then what are you basing it on?

Anonymous said...

Every single government program becomes a feeding trough for those able to navigate and exploit them. The problem with Open Space programs is that they exist at all. Change the rules and the new rules will be exploited and/or loopholes found. Our government is an ass and smart folks know this, well.

Joyce Marin said...

I'm sure that I could find this out by a call to both counties, but which local municipalities in the region have local farmland preservation programs? By the way, conceptually, I'm glad for the ones that exist. Assuming they could be structured to avoid abuses (because I think that we need to do more to preserve farmland before it's all gone) I'd probably support there being more local efforts, not less.
Sunlight is the best antiseptic. Let's figure out how to run these without the abuses and get to the business of preserving farmland in the region.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely and from what I've read (from Bernie) and heard from Foglia at meetings and read on this blog, they are both in favor of Farmland Preservation. What all must understand is that's very different than Open Space Preservation. That's where the abuse is. And, it's very simple. In Williams Twp and other municipalities (not all), properties are preserved that would NEVER have been developed. That makes no sense at all and that's not what any tax payer who voted to fund Open Space thought they were getting - period. The program in Williams Twp has been abused....all you need to do is check out the history on the Heindel and Heindel/Kirby properties. Heindels made out like bandits; they received ~ $800,000 to preserve one property that would never have been developed; then they got their millage frozen so they pay less tax than I do and I have 1.3 acres. I'm sure the taxpayers in Wilson, West Easton and Glendon would love to know they're picking up the slack. Then to top it off Heindels and neighbor Kirby went in on a property together...bought it and then got it preserved while both were on the Land Preservation Board!! Talk about gall! I would love to buy a lot next to my house and get reimbursed through the Land Preservation Fund....oh, wait...I'm not on the Board. Maybe I can buddy up to the Heindels???

Anonymous said...

Lets be clear about the basis for my problem with the millage freeze as applied illegally by the County to over 240 preserved parcels.

First, the PA Constitution, in its first sentence under Article VIII, Taxation and Finance says, "Uniformity of Taxation Section 1.
All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws."

Second, County Ordinance 452 says this on page 2, paragraph 2, as it should to satisfy the Constitution:

"This exemption from further millage increases shall apply to a taxing district only if all municipalities and school districts in the taxing district impose a millage freeze and shall be authorized only for real property qualifying for such exemption under the provisions of section 2 (b) (1) of Article VIII of the Constitution of Pennsylvania."

As you wrote, several school districts and municipalities in NC have no such authorizations in place. The county knows this fact. I gave them a list of at least 11 municipalities. Obviously, the "taxing district" discussed is the County of Northampton, because the County can only control its own taxing and millage freeze practices. Lawyers out there, please don't insult me by saying this is too complicated for John Brown, his lawyers, or any layperson to understand.

I remember the "Get Smart" TV program. When obviously trying to mislead someone, the lead character, played by Don Adams would say, "would you believe...?" Well I don't believe that they don't understand. But they get away with the Get Smart answer with most folks. Would you believe....that most folks trust them?

Vince Foglia

Joyce Marin said...

I would like input on the perceived value of farmland preservation in the region from your followers, Bernie. My understanding of the best way to make the most dollars available to this region for farmland preservation (and I'm talking generalities here) is that if the local municipality pools their money with the farmland preservation funds of their county, then they can leverage that with State money, thereby maximizing the funds available for purchasing easements. So, in theory, these local programs really make the county programs go further. That said, how do we avoid the abuses in the local programs so that we can keep farmland preservation functioning well in this region? For anyone that's interested, the "food report" from the EnvisionLV process, Assessment Report: Lehigh Valley Local Food Economy developed by Buy Fresh Buy Local of the Greater Lehigh Valley (and ably written by Lynn Prior with guest authors) states on page 1, "The biggest challenge facing the Lehigh Valley local food economy is the loss of farmland: since 1930, the Valley has lost 80 percent of its farmland...the expected arrival of 146,000 more people in the Lehigh Valley over the next twenty years will place yet more development pressure on this remaining farmland. The Planning Commission predicts that the nature of our municipalities is going to change: ten of the 17 rural municipalities will become suburban by the year 2040." Farmland preservation efforts can permit us to protect our ability to feed ourselves while retaining the character and identity of our communities. Clean up the abuses at the local level, but keep preserving farmland using easements.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Vince, I find your argument persuasive. The only conclusion that can be reached by anyone who believes in uniformity of taxation is to rerquire assent from all taxing agencies.

Also, in response to what someone suggested, lt me say that advocate the preservation of open space, whether it is farmland, environmentally sensitive land or parks. I oppose a perversion of the process. This is occurring with environmentally sensitive lands. The appraisals are being done incorrectly and the land being preserved would bever be developed. The Glovas tracts' appraisal makes that very clear when you examine the soil study attached. The land is too rocky to develop without being cost prohibitive.

I have seen very few worthy projects for environmentally sensitive land, yet they are still being preserved.

I suggest it is time to pull back and re-evaluate what we are doing to prevent the kind of insider dealing that has gone on in Williams and encourage that the only tracts of environmentally sensitive land being preserved are those under threat of immediate development. At the same time, I suggest we expand our outlook to include stormwater mitigation and improvements in water quality.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Joyce, you are correct. Northampton County was able to pool money with four townships to achieve a matching grant from the state that far exceeded wthe local investment, I believe we beat Lancaster County two years ago. I believe there is very little abuse associated with farmland preservation, where applications are stricly rated. The abse has occurred with the aceuisition of environmentally sensitive land.

Anonymous said...

Ron, I apologize that I wasn't clearer. The properties I referenced weren't farms. I am 100% for farmland preservation, and I personally would like to see farmers given MORE incentive to preserve. I am NOT in favor of giving money to Glovas or giving Heindel (not a farm) all that money, plus an exemption. The Heindel property value increased because of preservation, but from what I understand that is not reflected in their current assessment.

Now, back to read the rest of the comments!

Ron Beitler said...

I think I may have been confused as I THINK our ordinance in LMT limits the freeze to properties in our Ag security areas. Which means preservation for farming. Or at least that the property has the protections to continue to operate as a farm. I have to get clarification on that.

I agree I wouldn't want the freeze to apply to any other property other than active farmland (or available for active farmland) preferably on properties that could otherwise be developed with low ROI land uses.

Act whatever (forget the number off hand) authorizes the freeze state level. I think each individual ordinance can be different? So could our ordinance be different than Williams Twp.?

If I'm reading this correctly, properties preserved for environmental sensitivity that otherwise can't be easily developed have been given the freeze.

Now to be clear I think there are environmental reasons to preserve but there are other mechanisms available to that end. And other entities to help achieve. Like for ex. the wildlands who focus on environmentally sensitive lands with 50k+ acres preserved in the region. Most non farmed resources like South Mtn, Kittany Ridge, Lehigh River Corridor etc.

We shouldn't be mixing farmland and general programs. Or if we do making that clear to taxpayers. There are different justifications for each. Farmland there is a very clear financial one relating the health of the taxbase. So dollar invested today saves 2 dollars later.


Anonymous said...

Catching up on the comments now. Joyce, thank you for sharing that information. I think we're on the same page in terms of priorities. I am one of those people who try to buy the bulk of my produce at the farmers markets (and we have a lot around here!). And if I'm at the local grocery store, I try to buy the items that are displayed and advertised as produced locally. I think the loss of farmland is devastating. I also understand why a farmer would be tempted to sell his land to a developer, so pooling those funds to maximize money available for farmland preservation is a good thing. I'd rather double the amount offered to a farmer than spend a penny on this wacky Glovas thing.

Anonymous said...

"Northampton County adopted a law that imposed a millage freeze on preserved parties, but the language of its own ordinance makes clear that, before taking effect, every other taxing district in the County had to approve it, too."

What the law says is that in a given municipality, the school district, the municipality and the county have to agree. Three entities. Is there a town, township or city where that didn't happen? It DID take place in all the towns I am aware of. Please state each municipality where it didn't happen.

Your ambiguity and incomplete reporting on this is irritating and could be damaging. This is NOT Glendon versus Nazareth, or any other two or more towns. It is Glendon, the school district(s) that cover Glendon, and Northampton County. Same for Nazareth. It is the taxing districts within one municipality.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Let's start with Act 4 of 2006, which is the statutory basis for freezing taxes on farmland and other open space. It specifically provides that the exemption is effective only if "the governing body of each taxing district that imposes a tax on the real property approves the exemption either by ordinance in the case of a county or municipal corporation or by resolution in the case of a school district." That can be read so that it only applies to the county and the specific school district and municipality in which the preserved land is located. But because of the uniformity clause of the Pa. Constitution, the assent of ALL municipalities is needed. Otherwise, poor bastards in West Easton and Glendon are subsidizing Glovas' swimming pool.

Northampton County subsequently adopted an ordinance authorizing the freeze, and specifically provided that , by its plain terms, required adoption by every municipality and school district. That is to comply with the state constitution. Otherwise, Nazareth residents are funding open space in Bushkill, and West Easton residents are funding open space in Williams.

State law: http://www.farmlandinfo.org/sites/default/files/32_PS_5007.1_1.htm

County law: NorCo Council Minutes, 9/21/06.

Also, the ordinance was not adopted by about half of NorCo's municipalities. I will be providing exact numbers.

There is nothing ambiguous about my claim here. Also, the damage that has been done has been at the hands of those who perverted the open space program while you did nothing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bernie, Thanks for all of this information. This is an issue that needs more discussion and understanding by the citizens of the rural townships and the county elected and appointed officials.