Hawaii County is hearing mixed reviews from its effort to crack down on property owners suspected of abusing the agricultural tax break, according to the real property tax division chief.
Following an aerial analysis, the county sent 577 letters in early June asking tax break recipients to reapply for the exemption if there was no sign of farming on their land.
Stan Sitko, division administrator, said he didn’t have numbers for how many have responded to the letters since they are still being processed, but noted his staff has heard both compliments and complaints.
“We had some people rectify, we had some people who withdrew, some people who complained,” he said.
“I will say that the person working on it is my agriculture analyst. He has received both the drubbing and compliments, from people who came to rectify, for doing this.”
Property owners using the agricultural exemption pay taxes based on a set property valuation regardless of market value.
Those valuations range from as low as $28 to $420 an acre for pastureland to $4,000 an acre for land growing truck crops.
Property owners dedicating their land to farming for at least 10 years have those valuations cut in half.
The aerial analysis is part of an effort by the county to crack down on those abusing tax breaks.
But not everyone is happy with the process.
John McGuire of Mountain View said he sees that as an invasion of privacy.
“Your home is your castle,” said McGuire, a conservation farmer who was one of the letter recipients.
“I find it very disturbing.”
McGuire said his farming method, which involves reforestation and planting native vegetation, which he sells to floralists, might not be easily distinguishable from the air.
He said he depends on the tax break to make ends meet.
Sitko said the county isn’t trying to punish legitimate farmers, but weed out those who are not paying their fair share.
For those who reapply, he said the county will send someone to verify that there is an agricultural activity on the property. He said there is no cost to the property owner.
Sitko said the county isn’t conducting flights on its own, but using images already taken over the last three years.
The images are provided by Pictometry International Corp., which has taken aerial shots of most of the state, Sitko said.
They are more detailed than images from Google maps or other free online sources, but not “radically” so, he said.
Sitko said the county can use them to see a cow in a pasture or rows of crops, but not much else.
The review process might be far from complete.
Sitko said the letters were sent to potential violators in Puna only, adding his staff is looking at images from South Kona next.
From there, they will work their way around the rest of the county.
“We are going to try to distribute it around the island as evenly as we can,” he said.
“It’s just that we cannot digest all the island at once.”
Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune- herald.com.