Time and taxes exact their toll

Cost of staying rises as land appreciates

development follows

January 04, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Bill and Ellen Waff aren't long for their 25-year Savage homestead, thanks to huge property tax assessment increases tied to soaring Howard County land prices and local growth controls.

In 1999 the assessed value of their 6.7-acre property exploded from $168,220 to $425,250 -- more than doubling their annual tax burden just as Bill was laid off from his defense industry job. They appealed that valuation but lost. Last July, their tax bill rose from $2,265.66 in 1998 to $5,666.73.

A new assessment announced last month would inflate their homestead's value another 42 percent, to about 3.6 times its 1998 worth -- from $168,220 to $605,840 in four years. But the first tax increase was enough. The Waffs had already decided to leave.

The Waffs' property -- the remnant of a 20-acre farm partially used for the new Route 32 -- is under contract to become two dozen condominium townhouses, and the couple will move to an 18th-century home in Connecticut this month, bought with the profits from the sale.

While it is clear that the Waffs will make a profit on the sale of their land, they insist they would not be selling their longtime home if the sharply higher taxes had not forced their hand.

"They ran us off here. We wanted to stay," said Ellen Waff, standing with Bill in the sunny cold outside her 1890s farmhouse, surrounded by geese, dogs, cats and a holly tree taller than the house. Their land has the look and feel of a bygone era. The house has no central heating, and the ramshackle outbuildings are surrounded by woods. Cats slip in and out through an open window while dogs bark from the porch.

Since Maryland's property tax assessment limit covers only a home and 1 acre, the Waffs, like others who own extra land, were hit with the full increased tax burden.

And that burden is growing fast in upscale suburbs such as Howard County, where growth controls are discouraging development in rural areas -- while pushing more new homes into older areas like Savage. Howard's new General Plan allows 1,000 fewer homes per year in the county. That pushes land prices higher and assessments up.

"This is one of the choices we have made," said County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who represents the area where the Waffs live.

"We've had several people say they've been forced to sell their property in Elkridge," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director. But preservation programs can help shield land from high assessments, he said.

State assessment officials in Howard said sales of expensive, smaller parcels have become more common -- frequent enough to warrant higher assessment values for buildable land.

"There were lots of sales of small to midsize parcels. We'd have a sale at $800,000, and we'd have a $300,000 [assessed value] on it," said Kent T. Finkelsen, assistant supervisor of assessments in Howard County.

The Waffs declined to reveal what they are receiving for their land -- saying only that it is less than the latest assessment. The transaction has not yet gone to closing, so the price has not been recorded.

Preservation a possibility

County and state officials say that preservation and forest conservation programs can shield landowners like the Waffs from sudden, huge property tax increases, but the couple said they did not realize their land would qualify.

They explored seeking an agricultural rating, but that would have meant leveling 3 acres of trees and keeping at least five large farm animals without enough pasture to support them, Ellen Waff said.

Their land's steep hillside made it too difficult to subdivide and sell off a few acres, but under cluster zoning in place since they bought the property in 1976, two dozen townhouses can be built on the flat area.

The Waffs said they thought that the state's forest conservation program, which would have reduced their tax bill, required at least 10 acres, so they did not pursue that. In fact, the program requires 5 acres, and it might have helped them.

"We kind of tried everything we could think of," said Ellen Waff.

On Wednesday, a moving company estimator drove up the rocky, rutted driveway to their still rural hideaway south of Route 32 as they prepare to leave Maryland.

Active in community

Bill Waff, an electrical engineer and a Coast Guard retiree, sits on the Howard County Board of Appeals, which decides land-use cases. He has been a community activist in Savage for years, especially on zoning issues, and the couple know local politicians well.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a friend and former neighbor, said she is sorry to see the Waffs go, but their circumstances are complicated.

"It's a hard question, and I don't know the answer," she said.

Land along the Patuxent River near Savage was zoned for cluster development years ago as a way of protecting the river, she said. But if laws are changed to protect owners like the Waffs, the changes might also remove value from land that some owners want to sell.

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