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Pioneer Editorial: Swift action solves Green Acres issues

The mention of "Green Acres" to a farmer won't conjure up the city-dweller's image of the classic Eddie Albert and Arnold the Pig television series. It's more likely to get their dander up about a state tax program that now costs them money.

The state's Green Acres law underwent many changes last session, but those changes inadvertently affected farmers with idle production land or land in the Conservation Reserve Program which found them paying higher property taxes since they involve non-productive agricultural land.

The idea of Green Acres is to keep farmland from being sold for development by allowing farmers to defer paying a part of their increased property taxes on ag land whose value spiked because of development pressure. Last year's reform, however, penalized farmers for the non-productive ag land.

The measure saw a lot of attention in the metro area, primarily because of urban sprawl and the widening encroachment of suburban growth into farmland. Farmers are now penalized with full property tax bills for buffer land between their farms and growing housing developments, or for putting non-productive wetlands into a conservation program.

But our farmers "up north" also feel the pinch of Green Acres changes as many local farmers have unproductive lands -- especially wetlands known as bogs up here -- or acres entered into the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Also, while there is some encroaching of housing developments outside of Bemidji, many farmers see increasing property value pressure from adjacent lands being sold as "hunting preserves" from our neighbors to the south.

So it comes with great pleasure that a bill to correct the Green Acre corrections now rests on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's desk, awaiting his signature, having passed the Senate on Wednesday by a 59-5 vote, and earlier by the House.

Tacked onto a bill that conforms Minnesota taxes to federal taxes, the governor is expected to sign the measure.

The bill strengthens the intent of Green Acres to preserve agricultural land, and it also creates a new Rural Preserve Program that will offer tax benefits to those who want to keep lands undeveloped and protected but no longer qualify for Green Acres. They will have until 2013 to seek enrollment in the new program. Productive ag land more than 10 acres will continue to receive the special Green Acres tax treatment.

The new changes will also offer a refund to property owners who have paid the higher taxes on non-productive land. Plus, a repayment penalty of delayed taxes won't be triggered by marriage, divorce or transferring Green Acres-enrolled land within a family.

The "correction" to 2008 reform was swift, compared to the way the Legislature usually acts. It is a good display of how legislators, hearing the concerns of their constituents, can act in a bipartisan manner to effect good public policy.