September 12, 2008
Seattle, WA - Remember Lisa Sferra, the owner of a Seattle horse farm who got a whopping $8,200 drainage-tax bill?
I wrote about her plight in August. How the city jacked her farm's drainage tax an eye-watering 835 percent in one year.
Hundreds of you wrote in support of one of Seattle's last working farms. And to say it's City Hall that needs a thorough stall cleaning.
Well, it turns out that little controversy was chicken feed compared with what happened next.
The next week, Sferra went to her mailbox to find another letter, this one from King County.
It said the county was making a change. Farms that only board horses are no longer considered "farms." So they don't qualify for reduced property taxes.
Not only that, but horse-boarding farms like Sferra's would owe seven years' worth of back taxes, penalties and interest.
Her bill: $80,000.
"You start to wonder: Am I doing something wrong?" Sferra said the other day. "We're here doing our own thing, and we keep getting these letters from the government with these bombs inside of them.
"I mean, one after another, threatening our home, our livelihood. It's like a full-time job keeping up with it."
This is a family that has lived on 20 acres near Rainier Beach since 1919. With its corrals and ramshackle barns, its 25 horses and one pregnant cow, there's no place like it left in Seattle.
Yet she's hardly alone in feeling under assault. Horse boarders in the suburbs have gotten the same letters. Since the '70s, their farms have been farms for tax purposes. Now, mysteriously, they're not.
Ken Starr boards 10 horses at his 4-acre Starry Night Farm east of Woodinville. It looks like a farm, with a barn, pasture and riding corral. He got the county letter defarming his farm. He owes $27,000 in back taxes and interest.
"This is enough to drive some of the horse farms under," Starr said. "None of us are sure what the point is. They're just going to end up with a bunch more strip malls out here."
I called King County and asked what the point is. They said to get the tax break, a horse farm must do more than house and feed horses. It has to breed and sell them to be a legit, working horse farm.
I think the argument is that farming for recreation doesn't cut it. You have to farm for production. And so on that technicality, we're going to drive acres of farmland into the arms of developers?
Sferra is arguing her farm does more — it has chickens, sheep and that one cow — so she's hopeful of keeping her farm tax status. And avoiding that $80,000 bill.
There is also some good news from City Hall. This week the Seattle City Council will take up an ordinance to reduce Sferra's drainage tax to a sane level (about $1,000 instead of $8,000). It also applies to 67 other open-space properties (including Seattle's only other farm, a 4-acre horse farm near the West Seattle reservoir).
Credit goes to council members Richard Conlin and Tom Rasmussen for acknowledging a mistake. But mostly to all who wrote, called and rallied to save the farm. You may not be able to fight City Hall. Sometimes you can persuade it.
Still, I can't write about and you can't rally for every farm now being taxed to oblivion. So here's a plea to our local governments: Can you please leave the farms alone?
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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