Council passes tax credit for urban farms

The Koiner property in east Silver Spring, shown in this photo taken last fall, will be eligible for a substantial tax credit under a new program. Photo by Mike Mowery.

The County Council unanimously passed a bill March 7 that would grant a tax credit to certain properties that qualify as urban farms.

The new law was driven by what Councilmember Tom Hucker (D-5th District) saw as the unfair taxation of the Koiner Farm in east Silver Spring, operated by 96-year-old Charlie Koiner and his daughter, Lynn.

“They’ve been, in my view, over-taxed as long as they’ve been farming,” Hucker said. “They are not taxed as a farm, which they are. They’re taxed as a single-family home. They’re not eligible for the agricultural tax credit because of an arbitrary rule of state law that says farms have to be over five acres.”

The bill applies to properties ranging in size from one-half acre to less than three acres that are also located in or within 1,000 feet of a Metro Station Policy Area. The property must also be used for at least two of three urban agricultural purposes, defined as:

  • Cultivation of fruits, vegetables, flowers and ornamental plants
  • Limited keeping and raising of fowl or bees, and
  • Practice of aquaculture.

In addition, the operators must sell at least $5,000 worth of goods annually.

The bill also is intended to encourage urban agricultural use for several reasons, Hucker said.

“There’s an explosion in interest in the demand for locally sourced, healthy food, especially produce,” he said. “There’s also a lot of interest in reducing the food miles, the miles food has to travel to your table for the reason of reducing greenhouse gases.

“Obviously, if you’re encouraging local farming, you’re creating jobs, you’re putting money back into the local economy,” he continued. “And in a urban area like Silver Spring, you’re giving an opportunity for urban kids to learn where their food comes from, that it doesn’t just come from a box of a machine, that it comes from the land itself.”

The tax credit, which will be equal to 80 percent of the property tax that would otherwise be due, is good for five years, at which time the property owner can reapply for the credit.

“We wanted to put some safeguards in place to make sure that the county ag department was looking into each applicant and nobody was trying to game the system because this was a new program,” Hucker said. “We didn’t want somebody with a big backyard in Potomac to just plant some tomatoes and claim to be a farm.”

In the course of preparing the bill, Hucker said, the council learned that there is a growing movement to encourage urban agricultural uses. He noted that Baltimore, Washington D.C., Seattle and San Francisco, for example, have passed similar legislation.

“I was surprised to find out that this was a national effort,” he said. “We had the Johns Hopkins Council for a Livable World and other national groups like testify for the bill.”

He also noted the high level of support for the bill from hundreds of people in Silver Spring.

“People really got excited about keeping the Koiner Farm where it is,” Hucker said.

The bill passed on an 8-0 vote. Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At Large), a cosponsor, was not present for the vote.