Supervisors argue

Land use, which gives significant tax savings to people with acreage devoted to agriculture, forestry, or open undeveloped space, has come under the microscope in recent months. Some have said that land use helps to preserve Fluvanna’s rural character while others question whether it unfairly subsidizes owners of large tracts of land at the expense of the rest of the county’s taxpayers.

On June 15 supervisors decided to ask Mel Sheridan to brief them at a future work session on land use options, benefits, and recommendations for the program. But during a discussion of the minutes of that meeting, Weaver asked a question about what had been marked as the “pending” status of that conversation. His question ended up setting off a firestorm.

Chairman Mike Sheridan asked whether the “majority of the Board” wanted Mel Sheridan to present to the Board about land use. When it appeared as if some supervisors wanted to cancel the discussion scheduled for Aug. 17, O’Brien spoke up.

“The idea that the Board…would not even bother to review and understand the program is really a disservice to the taxpayers,” he said. “The idea of trying to take this off [the future agenda] right now, before we’ve even met with the commissioner of the revenue and had any options presented, is really disappointing.”

Supervisors have occasionally been reluctant in the past to publicly engage O’Brien in his efforts to tweak the land use program, but this time Eager spoke up. “You’ve often said that the county is subsidizing the farmer,” she said. “We’re not. The farms don’t cost the county what a home does.”

“We don’t subsidize people for driving efficient cars – in fact, we tax them more,” countered O’Brien. “In this case we have a subsidy under which somebody might be in land use…but there is no enforcement of the land use program.”

“That’s bulls–t,” said Mel Sheridan twice from the audience. He came to stand at the podium.

“If you haven’t generated any revenue as a farmer, then should you be under the farm program?” asked O’Brien. “I don’t think when we have taxpayers farming at a hobby level, that that is necessarily encouraging economic or agricultural development in the county… That person should be in open space [receiving a lesser tax break]. I think that’s an absolutely fair thing to do. I think that’s fairer to the person who is actually farming.”

Eager disagreed that the Board needs education about land use given that she, Weaver, Booker, and Mike Sheridan have land in the program. “Four of us, who are in land use, we understand how it works,” she said.

Then Mel Sheridan spoke from the podium. “I take exception with the fact that [O’Brien is] maintaining that it’s not enforced because that’s just not right,” he said. “It may not be enforced in the way that you would like to see it enforced, but it’s been enforced for more than 50 years… People are removed from this program. And it has rollback taxes that are strictly enforced… I can’t sit there and let you lead the public to believe that there is no enforcement of the land use process.

“I’ll be happy to answer any questions y’all have, but options?” Mel Sheridan continued, referencing the land use options he was asked to bring to the Aug. 17 meeting. “Options are y’all’s responsibility… I’m certainly not going to come in and say these are the options that you should consider. That’s not my role. My role is to enforce the policy that y’all have in place, and I do that, I think, very aggressively.”

When O’Brien asked how much revenue a farmer needed to generate per acre to qualify as having a bona fide agriculture use to his or her property, he and Mel Sheridan started speaking quickly back and forth.

Mike Sheridan banged the gavel. “I’m going to call this back in because right now we’re going down a road –”

O’Brien interrupted to appeal to County Attorney Fred Payne for the right to continue. Payne said that since the conversation began as a discussion of the minutes of a previous meeting, O’Brien could bring up his concerns later in the meeting under the “old business” section.

“We definitely need to have a thorough discussion and understanding,” said Booker. “Since the Fluvanna Review did the article on land use…there are questions. People need to understand nobody’s trying to hide anything, nobody’s trying to take land use away. I want my constituents to understand land use… We can’t just continue to roll over it.”

“But we can’t just continue to talk about it,” said Weaver.

When the “old business” section of the meeting arrived, Eager asked if the Board was intending to finish its discussion.

“The idea of not even looking at it would reflect very poorly on the Board from a transparency perspective,” said O’Brien.

“All of the people who are in land use who live here in the county pay taxes just like you do on their home and the two acres under it,” said Eager. “It’s not like the farmer doesn’t pay their fair share, because we do.”

“The question isn’t whether or not you pay or don’t pay, the question is the different programs that are in place and how those programs are used,” said O’Brien. “If we as a Board don’t understand what the bona fide intent is to be in the farm use program, how can we say we’re being transparent? We might as well just say that if you own more acreage we’ll just give you a 93, 96 percent discount… I think that if we don’t even bother to understand it and discuss it as a Board – if we just whitewash it off the list before that has even been presented – it shows an incredible lack of transparency on the part of the Board.”

Booker again pushed for a further discussion. “If we’re having this much of a debate…then it says to me that we need to put it out there and dig it out,” she said. “Nobody’s trying to get rid of land use. It may continue the way it’s been, but at least we’ll understand it. There are many people with questions about it and they can see that we hear them and that we took some time, and they can come and listen to it. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to do that.”

“We have Board members right now who don’t even want to look at [land use],” O’Brien said. “I think that shows utter lack of transparency… And I would certainly suggest that certain Board members have serious conflicts of interest if they buried it.”

Eager saved $28,515 in 2015 taxes from having property in land use. Weaver saved $1,995; Booker saved $944; and Mike Sheridan saved $445. O’Brien has no land in the program.

“Well, that’s your opinion,” said Weaver.

“I’m sure other people would share my opinion on that,” responded O’Brien.

During public comments, Mel Sheridan addressed the Board. Landowners are “required to state under penalty of law that they are performing a farming operation,” he said. “In Fluvanna it’s never been a requirement that you produce an income from farming. Gosh, I hope it’s not, because I don’t know many farmers who actually do produce an income. You’re required to have in agriculture application.

“Bona fide uses are verified and are annually certified to by signature of the appropriate landowner,” he continued. “It is not some willy-nilly, fly-by-night, loose-end program that’s not got a follow-up piece to it. If y’all want to be more stringent in how it’s been determined to be bona fide, that’s clearly the Board’s call… But I do think it would be fair to eventually put this to rest once and for all.”


After the meeting O’Brien approached the Fluvanna Review reporter to clarify that he “never meant to imply” with his comments about enforcement that Mel Sheridan does not do his job.

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