ERWIN — Unicoi County resident John Day said Monday that through his nearly yearlong investigation of operations of the Unicoi County Property Assessor’s office, he has found that two Unicoi County officials have been reaping the tax benefits of Greenbelt property classifications while failing to comply with state requirements to receive these classifications.
According to Day, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and County Attorney Doug Shults own property that falls under the Greenbelt’s forest classification. However, Day said neither Lynch nor Shults have filed the forest management plan required to qualify for this classification with the Property Assessor’s office.
The Greenbelt, also known as the Agriculture, Forest and Open Space Act of 1976, is essentially designed to prevent urban sprawl by providing tax reductions to property owners who have land that falls under three types of uses. The three classifications that property eligible for Greenbelt tax reductions may fall under are agriculture, forest and open space.
The December 2011 Greenbelt Handbook, which is distributed to property assessors office across the state by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Division of Property Assessments, says a forest management plan is required for land to qualify for the Greenbelt’s forest classification. Day said from the time property is first placed under the Greenbelt’s forest land classification, the property owner has three years to submit a forest management plan written by a certified forester detailing how the property will be used.
“But failure of the owner to submit the plan within three (3) years will cause the property to be disqualified as forest land and rollback taxes shall be due,” the handbook said.
Day said Lynch’s property on Ephriam Place in Unicoi County has been on the Greenbelt since 2008 and, since that time, Lynch has realized a cumulative tax reduction of approximately $2,000. Day said Shults properties on Rice Creek Road and Lewis Tipton Road have been on the Greenbelt since 2005 and that Shults has since seen a cumulative tax reduction of around $4,400.
Day said he wants to see Lynch and Shults comply with state law, which would mean the Greenbelt properties owned by them be immediately disqualified and that both men pay the rollback taxes owed, which is the difference between what they would have paid without being on the Greenbelt versus what was paid while on the Greenbelt.
Day said the law allows for three three of rollback taxes to be collected, and Shults and Lynch would owe these rollback taxes for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. Day said Lynch and Shults would have until March 1, 2014, to pay what is owed.
“If they don’t pay them then they will be subject to a tax sale on their properties like everybody who does not pay their taxes,” Day said.
He also said he will follow up with current Unicoi County Assessor of Property Patsy Bennett and county Trustee Paul Berry to see that the necessary corrective actions have been taken.
Lynch and Shults could then reapply to have their properties placed back under the Greenbelt and provide the required forest management plan to comply with the requirements, Day said.
Day said that nearly 550 county parcels, or around 22 percent of the county’s land, fall under one of the Greenbelt’s classifications. He said this equates to an annual tax revenue loss of $450,000 to $500,000 each year.
“My belief is there are property owners in Unicoi County who are meeting the requirements of their Greenbelt classification, but I also believe at the same time there are others who are not based on input I have received from people who are close to that issue,” Day said. “Those are the ones we’re going to ferret out.”
Day said the purpose of his investigation of the property assessor’s office, which he said he initiated last March when approached be several county citizens, was undertaken because he and others feel there are issues in several areas of the office causing situations that are “not equitable to all county taxpayers,” adding that the Greenbelt is one of these areas. He also said he has nothing to gain from investigation and is not “picking” on county officials by discussing his initial findings, adding that he only wants to ensure fairness.
“I chose them because if we find issues with county officials and judges and lawyers, and they’re not required to fix their problems, and the county commissioners and the state take the position to forgive them, then my position would be forgive everybody,” Day said. “All the other problems we find, let everybody slide.
“My goal is to make sure that all the people who cannot afford more taxes are not having to pay for those who don’t pay their share.”
Shults said Monday that he applied for Greenbelt status a number of years ago under a previous property assessor. He said he would file the necessary paperwork to remain under the Greenbelt if he is not in compliance.
“I filled out everything that I was asked to fill out,” he said.
Lynch said his failure to file the forest management plan within the three-year period was an “oversight” and that Bennett had previously made him aware that the plan was required. Like Shults, Lynch said he applied for Greenbelt status on the Ephriam Place property under a previous assessor.
“I actually let it sit here on the desk and just didn’t do it,” Lynch said. “I called the forester back in the summer, and we just never could hook up to go up and look at it.”
Lynch also said it was not Bennett who placed he and Shults under the Greenbelt as a favor to fellow county officials.
“We are responsible for our own forester, and there may be some more people who have not filed them, so it’s not a huge issue. It’s just one of those things I let slip by, and I’m sure other people let it slip by, but I can assure you that Ms. Bennett is not the type of person who would give favoritism to county officials simply because we’re county officials,” Lynch said.
Lynch said if it is determined he is in non-compliance, he would correct it by paying the rollback taxes owed, reapplying for Greenbelt status and submitting the forest management plan. He also said having the approximately 20-acre parcel on Ephriam Place costs him around $450 in taxes annually, a slight reduction in what the cost would be if the land was not on the Greenbelt.
“I can’t say that I’m happy about it, but it’s happened and it’ll be taken care of,” Lynch said. “There’s quite a few property owners in the county that have large tracts of land, and they don’t really have a lot of income, they just have some land. And I hope that what (Day) is doing doesn’t cause people to have to be selling off their property to pay property taxes.”
Bennett declined to comment.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct word usage in a quote.