Lehigh County farmers want the county’s help to stabilize how much they pay in real estate taxes, rather than paying fluctuating taxes based on production that varies from year to year.

Two southern Lehigh County farmers who serve on the board of the Lehigh County Farm Bureau asked the county commissioners to enact such a stabilizing ordinance Wednesday night.

The issue involves Act 319, formally known as the Pennsylvania Farmland and Forest Land Assessment Act of 1974, but commonly called “Clean and Green.”

Land voluntarily enrolled in the Clean and Green program is taxed on its production value – for example, what crops produced on farmland are worth --rather than its fair market value. Enrolling in the program usually results in tax savings. In fact, it can lower property tax assessments by up to 50 percent.

The state Department of Agriculture calls Clean and Green a significant farmland preservation tool, with a record 9.4 million acres enrolled in the program last year.
A 2010 survey by the state showed Lehigh County had 37,487 acres of agricultural land in the program.

The program allows each county to establish a base year to calculate the tax assessment.

Standing before the commissioners to ask Lehigh County to do just that were Houston Lichtenwalner of Upper Milford Township, who raises crops and Angus cattle on about 800 leased acres, and Arland Schantz of Lower Milford Township, who raises Christmas trees, crops and cattle on his farm.

The two farmers could not provide statistics, but said other counties throughout the state already have established a base year for the Clean and Green program.

The farmers explained establishing a base year means their property taxes will remain unchanged for five or 10 years, rather than taxes fluctuating as farm production fluctuates from year to year.

Lichtenwalner said stabilizing the tax rate helps the county know how much it will be getting from each farm enrolled in the Clean and Green program and farmers have a stable tax base “so they can do some planning and are able to better budget.”

Lichtenwalner said if the annually calculated value of production for each county goes below the designated base year, that base year automatically drops.

Pennsylvania State University developed a formula that creates average production values for each county every year. Lichtenwalner explained that’s a problem in Lehigh County, because it has soils and slopes that vary greatly.

He said an acre of farmland in the Macungie/Trexlertown/Wescosville area will produce two or three times the yield that an acre in the northern part of the county produces, because of shale, or an acre in the southern part of the county produces, because of hills and rocks.

By consensus, the commissioners agreed to look into the issue “to help maintain a vibrant agricultural community here in our county,” said Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners.

Commissioner Scott Ott said he values farming, but “I want to make sure everyone in Lehigh County is taxed fairly.” He said he doesn’t want change how farmers are taxed to affect or encourage farming. “If you’re a farmer, you should be treated fairly. If you’re a residential property owner, you should be treated fairly.”

But Schantz noted people living on a 100-acre farm doesn’t need the same amount of government services needed by people living in 100 acres in Allentown. “It’s not quite the same,” he said, adding he disputes Ott’s “treat them fairly” comment.

Commissioner Percy Dougherty said agriculture still is an important part of the economy in the Lehigh Valley. “We often take it very much for granted.” He also said Lehigh County has been a leader in preserving agricultural land. “We’re fifth in the state in the number of acres of agricultural land the county has preserved. We have over 20,000 acres preserved.”

The proposal will be considered by the commissioners’ administrative committee, beginning with a presentation by representatives from the farm bureau.

Lichtenwalner suggested the process could start with commissioners giving them a list of questions, but Commissioner Vic Mazziotti said: “I’m not sure we understand it well enough to come up with the right questions.”

Ott offered to work with the farm bureau to come up with a draft piece of legislation commissioners can consider. And Dougherty suggested they also get copies of ordinances from other counties that already have passed the change.

Also during the commissioners meeting:

*Commissioners discussed, but did not vote on, a bill that proposes amending the home rule charter to require voter approval to incur county debt that primarily benefits private parties. A final vote will come at their April 24 meeting.

*Commissioners had first reading of another bill that authorizes a total of $74,940 in matching community revitalization grants to 10 municipalities in the county. The only comments on the bill came from Commissioner Dan McCarthy, its sponsor, and Commissioners Dougherty and Brad Osborne, who asked to be co-sponsors.

Representatives of some of the municipalities that will benefit from the grants attended the meeting, but did not speak. Final action on the grants will be taken at the April 24 meeting.

*After much debate about whether it is appropriate to confirm the hiring of someone working for a county contractor or vendor, they formally approved the hiring of James Aurand of Watsonville, Northumberland County, as the new administrator of Cedarbrook Nursing Home – even though Aurand already has been on the job for four weeks.