Investigative reporter Marc Perrusquia and database reporter Grant Smith of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis dug into a 1976 law to preserve farmland with tax benefits (PDF). They found many properties received the tax benefit although they weren’t technically farms or forest preserves. Marc says similar laws exist across the country, making this a possible story to pursue considering state budget shortfalls.
“For real farmers, [the tax break] doesn’t make a huge difference, but it does for millionaires,” Marc says.
Marc says the paper was initially going to focus just on its county, but partnered with the Knoxville News Sentinel, also a Scripps paper, to cover the state. Their story says the law subsidizes estates such as those owned by “AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde, a Memphis multimillionaire, and some of the biggest names in country music, Wynonna Judd among them. Former University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer qualifies by baling hay on his $2.8 million, 47-acre Maryville estate.”
Marc says the laws exist under various names. For instance, the Minnesota law is called “Green Acres.” In Pennsylvania, it’s called “Clean and Green.” In California, it’s called the “Williamson Act.” Searching “current use programs” and “farm preferential tax” may help uncover programs in other states, Marc says. Also check with the state’s farm bureau and agriculture department.
Some states automatically apply the designation, while others like Tennessee require property owners to apply, he says. Not all states track the tax breaks, he says.
Property assessment data from county property assessors and state comptroller offices use the designations, Marc says. Searching for Tennessee’s “green belt” designation allowed Marc and Grant to calculate how much property owners save in taxes, Marc says. But getting the data from the state comptroller’s office required some negotiation, Marc says. He was told the data would cost $7,920, but eventually got it for free. “I pointed out that it’s public information that’s already been paid for,” he says.
The next challenge with the story was seeing the properties so he could describe them in the stories. No one offered him a tour so he spent time walking through woods along fence lines, he says.