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Jackson Township v. Paolin

June 29, 1981




These consolidated proceedings involve application of the Farmland Assessment Act of 1964, N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.1 et seq., and the imposition of rollback taxes pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.8. At issue is the taxable status of two parcels of land in Jackson Township, Block 40, Lot 70, consisting of 7.16 acres of vacant land, and Block 40, Lot 84, consisting of 46.17 acres. The two lots are separated by an eight-acre parcel of land owned by a third party. Jackson Township has appealed from judgments of the Ocean County Board of Taxation granting farmland assessment with respect to Lot 70 for 1976 and 1977 and with respect to Lot 84 for 1976. The county board subsequently issued judgments imposing rollback taxes on Lot 70 for 1976 and 1977 and on Lot 84 for 1976, 1977 and 1978 because of a cessation of farming activity on the properties as of 1977 and 1978. Taxpayer Paolin has appealed from these judgments. Paolin has also appealed from a county tax board judgment denying farmland assessment for both lots for 1979.*fn1

Lot 70

Jackson Township urges preliminarily that Paolin should not have been granted farmland assessment by the Ocean County Board of Taxation for 1976 and 1977 with respect to Lot 70 and that the township properly denied farmland assessment for the same lot for 1979 because Paolin filed no application for Lot 70 under the Farmland Assessment Act for any of these years. The township's tax assessor testified that the taxpayer's applications for farmland assessment prior to 1976 referred only to Lot 84, and that Paolin's 1976 and 1977 farmland assessment applications for Lot 84 included a reference to Lot 70 but reflected only the amount of acreage of Lot 84. None of these applications was placed in evidence. Paolin's 1979 application was put into the record and it refers only to Lot 84. Paolin's attorney stipulated that no separate application was ever filed for Lot 70. He stated at trial that the taxpayer thought his application for Lot 84 would be sufficient in any year to claim farmland assessment for both lots because the properties are in such close proximity to each other.

The taxpayer's contention must be rejected. A regulation of the Director of the Division of Taxation provides in part as follows:

Where separate, noncontiguous parcels of land in agricultural or horticultural use, in single ownership, are located in the same taxing district, a separate application for farmland assessment must be made with respect to each parcel. [ N.J.A.C. 18:15-3.2(e)]

The printed instructions on all farmland assessment applications state this same proposition in a different way:

1. GENERAL -- Only one application form in duplicate shall be filed for each farm made up of contiguous land. Enter in section 2 all of the lot and block numbers which make up the total area of each farm unit of contiguous land.

4. DESCRIPTION -- State block(s) and lot(s) as shown on the official tax map or page(s) and line(s) on the current year's tax list that make up a farm unit of contiguous land.

The obvious purpose of this requirement for a separate application for each noncontiguous property is to put the tax assessor on notice as to the specific lots for which the benefits of farmland assessment are being sought. This enables the assessor or make appropriate inquiries concerning the current use of the property. If no application were filed and the taxpayer in the following year were able to appeal from the inevitable absence of a farmland assessment on his property, the assessor would be at a distinct disadvantage at trial in attempting to refute a taxpayer's claim that he had devoted his property to an agricultural or horticultural use in the prior year.

No application for farmland assessment having been filed with respect to Lot 70 for any year, no farmland assessment should have been granted for that lot. Accordingly, the judgments of the Ocean County Board of Taxation granting farmland assessment to Lot 70 for 1976 and 1977 are reversed. The county board's subsequent judgment imposing rollback taxes with respect to Lot 70 for 1976 and 1977 is therefore mooted and will be vacated. The denial of farmland assessment for Lot 70 in 1979 by the Jackson Township assessor and the county board is affirmed because no application for farmland assessment was filed for that year.

Lot 84

The major issue presented with regard to Lot 84 is whether the property was "actively devoted to agricultural... use" in 1978 within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.1 et seq., and, if not, whether the property was "applied to a use other than agricultural" in 1978 so as to invoke a rollback tax assessment for that year and the two preceding years pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.8.

Taxpayer Paolin purchased Lot 84 in 1938 and has lived there ever since. No precise description of the property was offered, but it appears from a sketch put into the record by the township that the lot contains two open areas of about seven acres each, one containing an old cornfield slightly in excess of two acres in size and one containing a sizeable number of mature apple trees. Most of the rest of the property is wooded, except for an area around the farmhouse and outbuildings. Paolin at one time raised as many as 35,000 chickens on Lot 84 and at the same time engaged in general farming. Years ago he gave up the chicken business and turned to raising vegetables in addition to general farming. Now, over 70 years old and in a deteriorating state of health, he has been much less active than in earlier years. In 1978, the pivotal year for purposes of this litigation, Paolin had a leg amputated. As a result of this operation he spent three months in a hospital and additional time in a convalescent home. Except as will be discussed later, he conceded that "everything was lost" insofar as his farming was concerned in 1978 because of his health. Paolin continues to live by himself in the farmhouse on Lot 84.

Paolin testified from recollection concerning his use of the property. His testimony was somewhat vague. He said he had grown "a lot of hay" on the lot in 1978. He described the hay as a rye grass rather than clover or alfalfa. He also said that during that year he had sold close to 300 cords of wood at $12 a cord and some cedar trees at up to $25 a piece, and that in addition there were approximately 50 old apple trees which bore some fruit. Paolin testified that he had planted corn in 1978 but that deer destroyed the corn when it was only eight or nine inches high. A witness for the township later testified that Paolin had told him of planting corn in 1977 that was damaged by deer and not harvested, and that Paolin had said he planted no corn in 1978. Paolin testified that in 1979 he grew more rye grass which was cut all at one time and sold to a regular customer. When pressed for details of his farm sales in 1978, Paolin produced two receipts, one dated January 1978 for the sale of 68 cords of firewood at $10 a cord and one for the rental of a cranberry bog for $200. He had no records showing sales of apples or hay in 1978. Other evidence established that the cranberry bog was on Lot 85 rather than Lot 84. Paolin testified on cross-examination that the cordwood he sold had been from trees damaged by fire and that he sold the wood in order to clean up the property. Paolin's only other witness testified that the property in 1978 and 1979 had produced cordwood, apples and a "hay-type" crop, although he conceded that the apples had gone to waste in 1978 and that the hay-type crop had been turned under rather than harvested. No income information was produced by either witness with regard to 1979.

The Jackson Township assessor testified that the taxpayer had never provided him with the additional information he had requested in order to evaluate the farmland assessment application for Lot 84. See N.J.A.C. 18:15-3.5. The assessor made inspections of the property in June and October 1978. As of June, he observed a field of corn that had been planted in the prior year but which had not been harvested. As of October, he observed weeds two to three feet high in all fields. Both of these observations were substantiated by photographs taken at the time of the inspections. The assessor testified that he had observed no signs of active farming on the property during either visit, but on cross-examination ...

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