St. John residents who own more than three acres of land learned at a Wednesday, September 19, informational meeting that they don’t have to fear the tax collector following the recent property revaluations — and that they must jump on the bandwagon soon if they hope to reduce their 2008 property tax bill.
Forest Stewardship Coordinator Marilyn Chakroff of the V.I. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry discussed with residents at the Coral Bay Community Council-sponsored meeting how they can participate in the Forest Stewardship Program, which allows owners of three acres of land or more to save up to 95 percent on their property taxes by vowing to preserve their property.
“The intent is to keep forested land in forest,” said Chakroff of the program, which began in the eastern U.S. “One of the problems we noted is that as landowners age, the land gets transfered to the kids. They break it up — some keep it, and some sell it.”
The selling and subdividing of land often occurs when one is “land rich, cash poor,” explained Chakroff.
“They’d sell an acre to pay their property taxes, and that was fragmenting the forest,” she said.
Erosion, Water Retention Main Concerns
In order for wildlife to thrive, it needs a large amount of contiguous land. Fifty-six percent of forested land in the U.S. is owned privately and in danger of being divided and sold, explained Chakroff.
“Private lands can bridge that gap between things like national parks and protected areas,” she said.
Wildlife, however, is not the main concern in the V.I. The main focus of the local Forest Stewardship Program is to prevent erosion and retain water, according to Chakroff.
When the program began locally, it required that a landowner hold a minimum of 10 acres or more to participate. That amount was later reduced to five acres, and now just three acres of land is required to be eligible.
The process landowners must go through to join the Forest Stewardship Program involves walking the property with Chakroff and deciding on one of many possible objectives for the land for the next 10 years, including regeneration of natural forests, sustainable forestry, improved recreation and enhanced aesthetics.
“We’ve had landowners who wanted to have fruit orchards or a nature trail,” said Chakroff. “The objective really depends on the landowner.”
Plan Is Flexible, Not Legally Binding
A management plan is drawn up, and the landowner must adhere to that plan for the next 10 years. The plan is flexible, and is not legally binding, explained Chakroff.
“We have worked with people who own less than three acres if someone adjacent to their property wants to participate with them,” she said. “We’ve also worked with homeowners associations, including in Fish Bay, where they want to create a demonstration forest with native plants.”
The program also allows someone who holds a long-term lease on more than three acres of land to participate, and those who own a home or hope to build a home on their property are eligible as well, Chakroff added.
“We allow the owner to put aside one acre for current or future buildings,” she said.
In addition to the obvious benefits of helping to preserve land, prevent erosion and retain water, the Forest Stewardship Program allows participants to save up to 95 percent in property taxes — an excellent selling point in the wake of recent property revaluations, which pushed the value of some local properties up hundreds of times.
“It really is a good thing for people who have forested land and want to keep it that way,” said Chakroff. “Paying less taxes may give you the money to help follow the plan for your land.”
Apply Now for Tax Benefits
The process of joining the Forest Stewardship Program takes approximately one year, and needs to be completed by October 1 in order to receive the property tax reduction.
While the deadline to join the program and see the benefits on the 2007 property tax bill has already passed, those wishing to join the program in time to receive a reduction on their 2008 bill should begin the process now, CBCC President Sharon Coldren explained.
“Right now is the time to apply for 2008,” said Coldren.
The CBCC president announced at the meeting the organization’s willingness to help residents join the program.
“The CBCC is willing to ensure things are streamlined,” she said.