Several landowners have taken advantage of a Forsyth County rezoning program that could save them thousands in property taxes for 2011.
The expedited county-initiated rezoning to agriculture was approved by commissioners in January 2010 as a way to relieve the tax burden for those who weren’t using their higher value zoning.
An agricultural zoning represents the "lowest taxation you can get," explained Mary Kirkpatrick, chief tax appraiser.
Land zoned for residential or commercial uses raises the appraisal value, and in turn, the tax obligation, Kirkpatrick said.
Since the program began in January 2010, more than 1,000 acres have been rezoned back to agricultural, according to the planning department.
Nearly a year and a half later, commissioners plan to end the expedited program during their July 12 work session.
Commissioner Patrick Bell said the time has come, since landowners have had two tax cycles to take advantage of the process, which lowers the cost and time of rezoning back to agriculture for those who apply.
"It was started to assist some of our landowners that had their property rezoned as part of contracts to sell it," Bell said.
For many, he said, the deals fell through as the economy sank, yet they were stuck with the higher taxes.
"In an effort to help them keep their land, staff brought forward the idea of doing a county-initiated expedited rezoning," Bell said.
The expedited process can also lower costs for applicants, who may have otherwise hired an attorney, he said.
Since the program’s start, 23 applications have been submitted. Of those, 22 were approved and one is pending.
Four applications requested rezonings from commercial uses, but the majority rezoned from residential.
Only the 11 applicants who rezoned in 2010 will begin to see that tax savings this year, for a total of about $54,000.
Kirkpatrick said those savings make a "big impact" on what landowners pay, and especially for those who rezoned large tracts.
For example, the greatest savings for an applicant, who rezoned from medium-density residential, lowered the appraisal of 103.8 acres by nearly $3 million from 2010 to 2011.
That would equate to about $30,000 less in total property taxes, she said.
For an applicant who rezoned just 1 acre from high-density residential, the tax savings would be about $105 from 2010 to 2011.
Once the program ends, landowners can still rezone to agriculture through the normal process.
A typical rezoning would take at least three months, while an expedited rezoning goes straight to the county commission.
That has cut the processing time down to about two months, said Lori Kyle, senior administrative specialist in the planning department.
Though the title is "agriculture," Kyle said applicants typically go to the most basic zoning for tax purposes only and not farming use.
The name, however, can sound unwanted to folks living nearby.
"A lot of times when they’re zoned [residential], that’s what’s zoned around them too," Kyle said.
"Some of those people don’t like the thought of a chicken house going in, and they voice their opposition."
In those cases, commissioners have typically attached conditions that no bona fide agricultural operations can take place on the agriculturally zoned land.
Someday, those same applicants may return with requests to return to a higher-value residential or commercial use once again.
So far, none of the 23 applicants has requested a rezoning from agriculture yet.
"I don’t think we’ll see it any time soon," Bell said. "I would think that when the economy rebounds and we start growing again … I’m sure they’ll come back and go through the process, and then we’ll collect full fees again."