Landowner plants her own tax break

Christmas tree farm to cut $586,800 valuation on Howard Co. property

April 23, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

With a tape measure in one hand and a stake in the other, Shawn Streaker Lane is transforming her back yard so it won't slip through her fingers.

Faced with $7,000 a year in property taxes on her 8 acres in Ellicott City, she either had to sell - as others in quickly gentrifying Howard County have done - or find a way to lower the bill. A Christmas tree farm would lower the bill.

That's why the 51-year-old community college teacher was outside on a recent Sunday afternoon, wearing old jeans and a T-shirt, getting sunburned and rushing hundreds of seedlings into the ground before they wilt in her garage.

She measured and marked out the rows, 10 feet by 10 feet. A friend and three cousins planted by hand. At 4 p.m. - after nine hours of work that day and 10 hours spread out over two days the week before - they hit the halfway point.

A thousand down, another thousand to go.

"Yay!" Lane cheered, and then continued down the row.

"No time to celebrate," her friend, Frank Ryan of Columbia, said jokingly.

Behind them were the fruits of their labor: 3-year-old Scotch pines and Colorado blue spruces, charming and fragile and barely a foot tall. A few days before, when the magnitude of the project discouraged her, Lane said she bucked herself up with this thought: "Every tree you plant is one less."

Howard County's popularity is driving up property values and tax assessments and driving out longtime residents. Some are happy to move with money earned from selling to developers. Others are heartbroken.

Lane has spent the past 15 months - ever since her tax assessment jumped from $301,070 to $586,800 - ensuring that she would not be one of those leaving against their will. Her roots run deep. Relatives have lived on this land in the northeastern corner of the county since 1874.

As she has learned, people with "excess" land have alternatives: farm, plant a forest, preserve the land or subdivide some of it to cover the tax bill.

Lane settled on Christmas trees - a landscape-changing option, but one that would offer a source of income without sunup-to-sundown work. Hers would be the only Christmas tree farm in Ellicott City and one of about a half-dozen in Howard, according to the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

And her property assessment, on which taxes are based, should drop from tens of thousands of dollars an acre to less than $200 for each acre with trees. "Really a tremendous tax savings," said Howard Levenson, the state's supervisor of assessments for Howard County.

It's an investment in time, however. Until they're cut in about eight years, Lane's pines, firs and spruces will need yearly shearing and almost daily monitoring for insects and blights, said Leonard Wrabel, one of two forestry consultants she hired.

"That's a nice return when you're looking at paying pennies on a seedling, but it's a lot of work," he said.

Lane discovered that to be true just trying to get them into the ground. Some of the Norway spruces or Douglas firs - she is not certain which are which - are still sitting in buckets of water. She fears they will not last much longer.

"I've never been so tired of trees in my life," she said dryly last week, tucking seedlings into the ground in 90-degree weather after a day working at Baltimore City Community College.

"Actually," she added on reflection, "I think I'm just tired."

Sundays are crucial for planting because that's the only day Lane is not at college, either as a teacher or a graduate student. On April 14, under a brilliant blue sky, a small group of planting helpers worked to the sounds of trilling birds and rock music while Jack, Lane's Doberman/Dalmatian mix, ran around playfully.

"[It's] kind of fun, when you get the hang of it," said Shannon Collins, Lane's 13-year-old cousin, smiling though her hands were a bit blistered.

The hard part is ensuring that the roots go in straight, she said. They have to go in straight, or the tree will die.

Hiring a professional to plant the trees with a machine would have been faster and easier, but too expensive. Lane, who used to farm, said she is grateful to have the help of family, whom she can trust to be careful with the roots.

Family is the reason she so desperately wants to stay on the land. Her aunt lives on a third of an acre next door. Her parents live on a third of an acre two doors down.

Trees will take some getting used to, she said. Lane liked the open ground, even though it took eight hours to cut with a riding mower.

"That's the piece I'm going to miss, having space to spread out," she said.

She planned to leave a small patch of land behind her house untouched - enough for family cookouts and volleyball games.

Shannon frowned, calculating in her head. "How are you going to fit 2,000 trees and leave space for your volleyball?" she asked.

Lane thought it would work at first - but now wondered.

"This has been a seat-of-the-pants experience," she said.

Then Shannon looked over her shoulder, noticed a spot next to Lane's parent's house and suggested, "You could play volleyball all the way over there."

"Good girl," Lane said, smiling. "It's a learning curve, but we'll get there."

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