When home's out of range

Costs: As assessments in Howard County skyrocket, some landowners are faced with property taxes they can't afford.

March 17, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

This is Shawn Streaker Lane's nightmare come true: The land her home sits on is suddenly worth a half-million dollars.

Valuable property is not the bonanza, it appears, when you don't want to sell - in fact, it's a liability. Her annual tax bill for the 8-acre Ellicott City parcel has jumped to $7,000.

A community college teacher and graduate student, Lane said she cannot afford to spend that kind of money. It's a story repeating itself across Howard County, where scarce land and development regulations are pushing up values, which are pushing up tax assessments, which are pushing some families to sell to developers and move away.

But Lane is struggling to write a different ending for herself. She wants to stay on the land that is next door to her aunt and two doors from her parents. She wants to keep living in the $46,000 house that she and her father built themselves, down to the hand-mixed concrete.

She believes her experience - successful or not - will be enlightening for people in the same position and the policy-makers keeping watch.

"I kept thinking, `This is ridiculous: All of us are losing our property and there's got to be a way around it,'" said Lane, 51. "This property has been in my family since 1874, so I desperately want to hold on to what's left."

Her tale begins with two assessments.

The first, sent at the end of 2000, said her land was worth $367,840, a 22 percent jump. A month later came the second - corrected - assessment. It valued the property at $586,800.

"My God," she thought, "somebody's made some really big mistake, because I haven't done anything."

But it did not matter that she had not improved the property with hot tubs or gazebos. State assessors say an 8-acre Howard County parcel such as Lane's, zoned for up to 17 houses, would be in such high demand now that it could easily sell for even more.

"This is all market-driven," said Howard Levenson, supervisor of assessments for the county. " `Location, location, location' is all that real estate agents say, and we have all three."

That's not a consolation to Lane. She appealed the assessment and managed to bring it down a bit, to $532,060. Then she appealed for help.

Employees in Levenson's office told her she could lower her tax bill by farming, signing an easement to preserve her land from development or selling some of it.

For someone who liked things just the way they were before the tax increase - someone living in the suburban east rather than the rural west - none of the options looked thrilling.

Lane's family once farmed but gave up the battle with deer years ago. Her little flower garden is swaddled in fencing to give it a fighting chance.

She doesn't want to sell part of her back yard and look out at new houses. And yet she is wary of signing away development rights on the land. If her health should fail and force her to move, she might need all the money she could get from the property.

"I don't have anything to lean on," she said. "All I have is this property. I literally live paycheck to paycheck."

But she found another option. Christmas trees.

People who cover at least 5 acres in forest and get their woodlands management plan approved by government officials see their taxes plummet. The assessed value is typically $200 or less an acre, which works out to a bill of a couple of dollars instead of hundreds.

Lane calculated her start-up costs: $570 for 2,000 trees to add to the acre or so that is already forested. Anywhere from $350 to $800 for the management plan that must be drawn up by a forester. Twelve bucks for an aerial photograph of her property, also required.

She's trying to look at this as an opportunity - not only to save her land but to make some money around Christmas and help her Boy Scouts earn their forestry merit badges. (She volunteers with Boy Scout Troop 944.) She is trying to forget how much she likes her expansive field where kids can fly kites.

"This is an angle I can live with," Lane said.

Lane's councilman, Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, blames Smart Growth. To save farmland from sprawl, it directs development into established communities with infrastructure - helping drive up prices in Howard County's infrastructure-rich eastern side as undeveloped land disappears.

Merdon, who said he can't blame Lane for wanting to keep her options open, does not know if a solution exists. "It's a problem that's affected many families in the eastern part of the district," he said. "They feel that pressure to sell because they can't afford to live there."

County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a former director of Maryland's Sierra Club, does not want people to give in to that pressure. His suggestion is the one that makes Lane nervous: permanent preservation.

Guzzone is researching voluntary conservation options and thinking about ways to better publicize them.

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