Senate Leader Mark Norris fills a water trough for some of the horses on his 100 acre farm in Collierville. Many members of the Tennessee General Assembly, including Senator Norris benefit from a state law granting lower property taxes for farming, forestry and open space. (Kyle Kurlick/Special to The Commercial Appeal)

Senate Leader Mark Norris fills a water trough for some of the horses on his 100 acre farm in Collierville. Many members of the Tennessee General Assembly, including Senator Norris benefit from a state law granting lower property taxes for farming, forestry and open space. (Kyle Kurlick/Special to The Commercial Appeal)

By Marc Perrusquia,
October 28, 2012

The public is well acquainted with Mark Norris the lawyer and powerhouse state senator, but there’s another, lesser known, side of the 57-year-old Republican: He’s also a farmer.

“Nobody’s ever believed that I farm,” said Norris, who raises hay, horses and cattle at his 126-acre, $1.1 million farm in Collierville.

The arrangement saves him $7,100 a year in Shelby County property taxes under the so-called ‘Greenbelt Law,’ a state statute passed in 1976 that grants tax discounts for protecting farms, forests and rural, open space from urban sprawl.

Norris is one of 22 members of the 132-member Tennessee General Assembly — one in six — who receive property tax reductions under the law.

That roster, which includes Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and outgoing veteran West Tennessee Sen. Roy Herron, is largely devoid of the sorts of abuses revealed earlier this month in an investigation by The Commerical Appeal and its sister paper, the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

The newspapers found repeated instances of exploitation: Wealthy hobby farmers living in multimillion-dollar mansions who escape much of their property taxes by baling hay on a corner of their estates; real estate developers who subsidize future subdivisions and commercial developments by temporarily declaring them as tree preserves or nominal farms; corporations that underwrite future expansion by raising some cows or a row crop.

Greenbelt costs local governments nearly $191 million a year and causes some counties to forfeit as much as a fifth of their tax base.

Many of the Legislature’s greenbelt beneficiaries are engaged in traditional farming in rural areas and their annual subsidies total several hundred or a few thousand dollars, not the $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 sort of discount the newspapers found in some cases.

Ramsey, a cattle farmer, believes the law is effective in the “overwhelming majority” of cases — he suspects at least 90 percent.

At the same time, he said, “I’m sure there are incidences across the state where there are unintended consequences.”

As presiding officer of the state Senate, Ramsey is willing to consider “tweaking” the law to prevent abuses.For example, the law now requires that a property produce $1,500 in gross “agricultural income” annually to qualify for greenbelt status, a figure unchanged for 20 years.”Maybe that’s too low … We could look at raising that or, even better, make it so the local governments may police it more.”

He suggested that landowners could be required to provide a statement of income, perhaps including receipts.

“That would be fine with me and most anybody else who uses it legitimately,” he said.

At the same time, other legislators expressed deep reservations about making any adjustments to the law, which, in a state still dominated by rural politics, elicits the sort of rigid, line-in-the-sand positions often found in debates over abortion or gun control.

“I’m not going to raise taxes at farmers’ expense,” said Norris, a Senate leader — chair of the Rules Committee and member of the powerful Finance, Ways and Means Committee — most notably known in Memphis for his recent sponsorship of bills impeding plans by Memphis education officials to force an unwanted marriage on suburban schools.

Norris said he’s open to studying the law, but deferred to the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the powerful agricultural lobby, saying he’s interested what it thinks about possibly tweaking the law.

The short answer — not much.

“It’s been doing a good job,” Farm Bureau executive vice president Rhedona Rose said of the Greenbelt Law. “We wouldn’t endorse any (changes) without looking at them closely.”

In fact, Rose said her organization is focused on just one change — not anything stemming from the newspapers’ investigation — that would lift a current cap that limits property owners to enrolling no more than 1,500 acres in greenbelt in any one of the state’s 95 counties.

Rose held out little hope for tweaking even one of the most criticized aspects of the law, the rollback, a penalty assessed when greenbelt land is developed. The rollback assesses three years of back taxes and charges no interest (Pennsylvania, by comparison, charges seven years plus interest), a provision critics liken to an interest-free loan. Records indicate rather than preventing development it’s actually fueling it in east Shelby County where businessmen temporarily park future subdivisions and commercial developments in greenbelt to reap tax discounts that at times top 99 percent.

“I don’t think our folks would be interested in that right now,” said Rose, who said the rollback often discourages farmers from selling land.

Sen. Douglas Henry, who is co-trustee of 22 acres of greenbelt farmland valued at $4.2 million along exclusive Chickering Road in Nashville owned by his nephew, said he thinks any attempts at reform might be futile.

“I wouldn’t think it would go far because of the Farm Bureau,” said Henry, 86, who’s served in the senate since the early 1970s and was one of the original sponsors of the Greenbelt Law, designed to keep family farmers from being taxed off their land. “I thought it was a pretty good thing at the time. Davidson County farming was becoming impossible.”

While many legislators with greenbelt are farmers, one, Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, an attorney who doubles as a landlord and real estate investor, has hundreds of acres in greenbelt in Middle Tennessee. Records show Windle and a partner receive more than $7,200 in annual property tax reductions on 1,094 acres in Clay, Fentress, Overton and Pickett counties.

Other big greenbelt beneficiaries include Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who receives a $4,100 tax reduction on 92 acres he farms in Rutherford County, and Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, whose late husband, Tommy, fathered the law. She receives a $6,600 reduction on 881 acres she farms in Cumberland and Putnam counties.

Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Knoxville, who receives a $21,100-a-year discount on 742 acres he owns with two brothers in Knox and Jefferson counties where he raises free-range chickens, hogs, cattle and corn, said he doesn’t think there should be any rollback and said there certainly is no need for reform.

“It benefits everybody,” he said. “I don’t think it needs to be changed. It’s fine.”

Greenbelt’s pervasiveness — more than half the state’s land surface is covered by the program — extends beyond the Legislature to influential leaders such as Gov. Bill Haslam (he and business partners receive greenbelt tax discounts through a land conservancy in East Tennessee), Court of Appeals Judge Frank G. Clement and Revenue Commissioner Richard H. Roberts.

Haslam declined an interview but indicted through a spokesman a willingness to consider changes. That spokesman indicated the governor was familiar with issues raised in the newspapers’ series.

“At this point what we’ve seen is what’s in the articles, which made it seem like there were instances where the intent of the law was not being met. Beyond that there’s not much more to say right now but that the governor thinks the issue is worth taking a look at,” said Haslam spokesman David Smith, adding that it is “premature” to say what will be in the governor’s package of proposed legislation for next year.Norris chairs the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, a government think tank that recommended several changes to the Greenbelt Law in 2009, including reforming the rollback and limiting tax discounts “to those who actually depend” on farming “for a significant portion of their livelihood.” The report got little attention.

“I’m not going to say no,” said Norris, who said hearings would be needed before any proposed changes. “I always try to keep an open mind.”

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