ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - In July, investigative reporter Larry Barker found the owners of some impressive North Valley homes were calling their estates "farms," "orchards" and "pastures" in order to pay a fraction of the property tax they would otherwise owe.
KRQE 13 On Special Assignment followed up on those properties and found some people will go to surprising lengths to keep a tax break they think they're owed.
Things still may not be as they seem for some of the two dozen properties.
By using an exemption meant for active agriculture, homeowners are able to drop their property values by, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Bernalillo County Assessor's Office has taken a hard look at the exemptions pointed out by KRQE News 13 and now has boots on the ground.
"We're having our certified appraisers go out to these properties to verify the actual use of agricultural purposes on the land." says Damian Lara, chief information officer for the assessor.
It might not sound like a major step forward, but it is given as recently as January the assessor's office did not have a department to review agricultural exemptions.
Once the assessor's office started looking into exemptions, they found a gorgeous house on Rio Grande Lane NW is less "farm" than previously supposed. The horses and chicken coops the homeowner argued made it a working facility are just as absent as they were in July. What's there now is a contract to mow, bale, and most importantly, use grass on the property for feed at a local dairy.
Even so, the exemption stands to be reduced in size.
Don Hedges claimed a fruit orchard qualified him for an ag exemption on his property. That did not appear to be the case in July. But an assessor's review two weeks ago found horses.
Horses might qualify, but they haven't been claimed. As it stands today, Hedges would have his ag exemption clipped.
So far, the assessor's office found just a single property highlighted by Larry Barker in July that complies with the one-acre exemption it has now: the home of Paul Duncan, who literally took his case to court to protect his exemption.
Part of the problem for the assessor is that the law in New Mexico isn't terribly specific as to what constitutes proof of what’s termed “agricultural use” on a property.
The standard is what Lara terms "evidence of the actual use of the property."
That could mean using grass to feed livestock, growing plants like lavender or planting an orchard. But just planting isn’t enough. The exemption only comes into play when there is a use of that resource.
Trying to verify that evidence can be tricky and even dangerous.
In late September, sheriff's deputies say an 83-year-old man smashed the windshield of the county car driven by an appraiser who came to check his exemption.
As KRQE News 13 found at the home of Paul and Diana Maloof, pecan trees that might get them a tax break are indeed present. But again the trick for appraisers is determining what constitutes an orchard.
But what may be the best example KRQE News 13 found of how far property owners will go to get that tax exemption, is a North Valley home where a $400,000 reduction in value was on the books because of alfalfa production.
When the assessor couldn’t find evidence of alfalfa production for KRQE News 13, the homeowner now claimed livestock, specifically alpacas.
Two weeks ago, the assessor’s office says the furry, friendly, llama-looking critters were there and numbered maybe half a dozen.
When KRQE News 13 checked on two separate occasions this week, the beautiful property was still a beautiful property, but the alpacas were nowhere to be found.
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