Zoning and regulatory issues are a major part of New York real estate transactions. In many cases, a property owner's rights and responsibilities turn on interpretations of obscure laws, and it is not always clear when “common sense” should prevail.
When is a Horse Farm Not a Farm?
In a recent case a Long Island judge proposed the question, “When is a Horse Farm not a Farm?” The judge was not speaking metaphorically. Rather, he was asked to decide whether a particular piece of real property was entitled to special tax treatment under New York state law. This, in turn, required an examination of local zoning laws applicable to the property.
New York State law promotes the protection of the state's farmland through an agricultural assessment program. This program provides for “reduced property tax bills for land in agricultural production by limiting the property tax assessment of such land to its prescribed agricultural assessment value.” Qualified property owners must apply for an assessment.
In this case, a veterinarian leased a 440-acre property in the Village of Asharoken in Suffolk County. Although the property had been used as farmland dating back to the 17th century, Asharoken's zoning code presently bans any “commercial agricultural operations” within the small residential village. But here, the veterinarian uses the property to train horses for “exhibition and sport competition.”
The property owner applied for an agricultural assessment, but officials for the Town of Huntington, which includes Asharoken, denied the application. The owner then sought review in Suffolk County Supreme Court. Town officials argued that training horses does not qualify as an “agricultural activity” as required by the state's assessment program. They viewed the veterinarian's operations as a “hobby” or something done for recreation rather than the active cultivation of farmland.
The judge disagreed. Under New York law, a farm includes an operation whose business includes the sale of “livestock and livestock products.” Horses clearly constitute livestock, the judge said, as they can be cultivated for horsemeat (which he noted is consumed in many parts of the world, though not so much in the United States). Moreover, horses produce many “livestock products,” such as manure for fertilization.
Clearly, the judge said, the property owner was “engaged in the operation of an agricultural enterprise as defined by New York State Law by virtue of its training of horses for sport competition and exhibition.” That said, the judge still denied the assessment, because New York law requires a minimum threshold of “gross sales” of agricultural products to qualify for special tax treatment. The owner could not meet this threshold, in part because village zoning rules prohibited them from selling any products cultivated from the horses. The farm's only source of income was the actual sale of horses, and the judge said there was insufficient evidence presented regarding such sales.
Do You Have a Real Estate Problem?
If you are faced with a complex legal question involving your own property, it is important to seek advice from an experienced New York real estate lawyer. You should never attempt to resolve these issues on your own. Contact the offices of Mahir Nisar Attorney at Law., to speak with an attorney today.