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New Castle County poultry farms suffering from assessments, says Farm Bureau

chicken_house.jpg
Chicken growers don't typically allow photos to be taken inside of their chicken houses, but this is an example of the inside of one.

The New Castle County Farm Bureau says high county and school property taxes could drive some poultry and egg farms there out of business. 

 

A few years ago, Harry Spence built six 650-foot-long chicken houses and two manure sheds on his 81-acre farm in Townsend. After these additions, the structures at Black-bird Farms were assessed at over $1.7 million. County records show the farm’s total school and county taxes and fees bill jumped from roughly $2,000 in 2017 to nearly $55,000 in 2018, when the new structures were taken into account. 

“He knew it was going to go up, but it went up catastrophically,” said President of the New Castle County Farm Bureau Stewart Ramsey. “The six poultry houses don’t make enough money to pay the tax bill … You wouldn’t expect that the business investment would only return enough just to pay the tax increase. Obviously that doesn’t do much for him to provide an income for his family to live on.”

Ramsey sees Black-bird Farms as one example of a systemic problem. He says chicken houses in New Castle County are being assessed much higher than they are in Kent and Sussex. In the cases of Black-bird Farms, Puglisi Egg Farms and Greer Brother Farms in Middletown, Ramsey says poultry farmers are paying tens of thousands of dollars more in taxes on accessory buildings than they would if they farmed in the other two counties. 

County Councilman Dave Carter also sees this as a problem. He says it is deterring agricultural use of land in southern New Castle County.

“In 1983, the last time we did an assessment, my guess is that all of our chicken farms were much smaller,” he said. “And now they’re very large, and the way the assessments are being done, it’s just making it hard for them to survive. We can correct that.”

Carter does not contest New Castle County’s assessment of these buildings.

 

"I am not going to stand here and say the assessments are wrong, in fact I think they’re right,” he said. “It’s a hot commercial market [in southern New Castle County,] so building costs are probably being assessed much higher. But I think one of the unintended consequences is that our farmers, who have very different profit margins, are getting wrapped up in it.”

In a recent council committee meeting, Carter recommended a 70 percent reduction of the poultry farm structure taxation value in New Castle County, in order to be commensurate with Kent and Sussex Counties.  

“It’s really something that’s unsustainable for the [New Castle County] farmers,” he said. “And with that in mind, I think we need to change the code. I don’t know if  we can necessarily change the assessment criteria and formula, but we can change the rate at which we tax them.”

He notes only about a quarter of property taxes go to the county — while the majority goes to school districts. So he says a solution would involve working with state partners to lower school taxes on these types of buildings.

New Castle County Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick sees the situation differently. “I think if they’re going to do something, they need to follow the process,” she said. “The process in state law say go to the Board of Assessment.”

Delaware Department of Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse says he has heard from several farmers in southern New Castle County about the issue of taxes on accessory buildings, and has been met with County Executive Matt Meyer about it. 

 

“I think that each county looks at the ways they do assessments for different types of structures in different ways,” said Scuse. “Hopefully by working together we can bring a solution to the issue involving New Castle County. And I think the County Executive and hopefully the council would like to find a way to resolve the issue.”

 

In a statement, New Castle County government spokesman Brian Cunningham called the issue a “unique challenge” for New Castle County, because it lacks the history of a poultry industry that Kent and Sussex have.

“Agriculture in New Castle County is a critical component to who we are as Delawareans, and the Meyer Administration is committed to creating a fertile environment for farms and agribusiness to thrive,” he said. 

Cunningham says New Castle County is “exploring avenues” to address the Farm Bureau’s concerns, but has asked any poultry farmers concerned with their building assessments to file an appeal with the Board of Assessment.

 

Harry Spence of Black-bird Farms says he has an appeal filed.

 

Delaware Public Media's Sarah Mueller contributed to this report.

 

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