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Forestry removed from Land Use Program

The Cumberland County Board of Supervisors has unanimously voted to remove forestry from the county’s Land Use Program, increasing taxes for residents who currently receive a deferral.

Some citizens view the move as a big mistake, and one board member has already expressed regret for the vote.

In recent months, the Board held a public hearing to consider amending Section 58-211 of county code in order to remove forestry as an allowable exemption through the Land Use Program.

Cumberland’s Land Use Program currently allows eligible agricultural, horticultural and forest land in the county to be taxed based on the land’s use value as opposed to the land’s market value. The program is designed to encourage the preservation of land, conservation of natural beauty and open spaces within the county, easing pressures that force the conversion of real estate to more intensive uses.

Supervisors began considering the code amendment after officials highlighted approximately $444,355 a year in taxes are deferred through the forestry portion of the program alone, $293,997.22 of which are exemptions given to non-Cumberland property owners.

Participants receive a tax break of between $9 and $10 per acre through the program.

Board members heard from various experts in the field during a forestry land use workshop held Nov. 4.

At the Nov. 9 regular board meeting, District 2 Supervisor Ron Tavernier made a motion to approve the code amendment. The motion was seconded by District 3 Supervisor and Board Vice Chair Eurika Tyree and passed unanimously.

While the issue had already been voted upon before public comments were heard, several residents made sure the Board understood their disapproval of the motion and asked supervisors to reconsider the vote and the impact it could have on families and local forest land.

“If the land use program were to be scrubbed, the jump in taxes would put a financial burden on our cousins,” resident Sarah Hazlegrove stated. “ I ask the Board of Supervisors to think hard about what it means to the family farms who have struggled through the years and had a small break over the years through the Land Use Program. To see it go to timber would be really catastrophic for these people who live on such thin margins.”

Previous Supervisor Bill Osl told the board he worried its next move could be to take agriculture land out of the program and asked the supervisors to reconsider their actions.

“Folks from Weyerhaeuser (an American timberland company) told me that as a result of this action you’ve taken tonight, Cumberland County will now be the highest average land use value for forestry in the entire Southeast and the entire Gulf Coast,” Osl said. “You’ve created a tremendous disadvantage from a competitive standpoint with our other jurisdictions in the entire Southeast and Gulf Coast.”

Residents’ warnings seemed to possibly strike a chord with District 4 Supervisor Gene Brooks who expressed regret for the Board’s vote.

“I would hope we would reconsider the land use issue,” Brooks said during Supervisor comments. “I predict this decision is going to have ramifications far beyond this Board.”