A Rogue River beekeeper who says bees are his livestock and his livelihood took his ongoing battle with the Jackson County Assessor's Office to a Salem tax court Tuesday.
John Jacob, owner of Old Sol Apiaries, keeps between 30 and 300 hives on Leroy and Nancy Wehde's 40-acre property outside Rogue River. Jacob is helping the couple fight zoning changes that have increased their tax bill by $1,000 annually, said Nancy Wehde.
At issue is whether using 19 acres of the farm for honeybee forage qualifies the land as being in active farm use.
"This is all about getting the farms right for the bees," said Wehde, adding Jacob has kept bees on her property for the past decade.
"John is trying to get a fair shake for the bees and for the people who have the bees on their property," she said.
The 40-acre property, of which roughly half is forested and half is cleared, is zoned for exclusive farm use. But in 2011 the county disqualified the 19 acres of tillable cleared land from its special farm use designation, which carries a lower tax rate.
Josh Gibson, Jackson County's assessor, said the changes were made after an appraiser for the Assessor's Office reported the land in question was not being farmed in "best use practices" in accordance with state law.
The redesignation raised the Wehdes' tax bill from under $100 annually to more than $1,000, he said. Gibson denied the zoning change was made to increase tax revenues for the cash-strapped county.
"This is about the highest and best use of the property," Gibson said. "It's not about increased (tax) revenues."
Jacob did not return calls to the Mail Tribune Tuesday. But he testified in an August 2012 hearing before Oregon Tax Court Magistrate Dan Robinson.
The county disqualified all of the cleared land, except for the single acre upon which Jacob's apiaries sit, from its farm use special assessment status, saying it was "currently lying idle or no longer in a qualifying farm use."
"Farm use" is defined as "the current employment of land for the primary purpose of obtaining a profit in money" by conducting various specified agricultural activities, including "feeding, breeding, managing or selling livestock, poultry, fur-bearing animals or honeybees or the produce thereof."
The Wehdes and Jacob contend Oregon statutes show his beekeeping qualifies as farm use. They say the 19 acres should regain its farm use status because it is a forage area for Jacob's honeybees.
Jacob testified that he keeps between 30 and 300 hives on the property at a time, depending on the season. The hives are clustered together near the edge of the Wehde's property boundary, both for Jacob's convenience and to minimize bee stings elsewhere.
Jacob's bees produce honey, but the majority of his revenue is derived from the bees' usefulness in cross-pollinating crops. Orchard owners, particularly growers of almonds and pears, lease his hives during the pollination season because the bees' activity generates larger yields from their trees, he said.
Jacob also sells queen bees nationally. Jacob testified that his queens are in demand because they are especially bred to be resistant to disease, which has been a particular concern to farmers and beekeepers across the country in recent years.
Jacob testified that the subject property is "one of the best" properties in the area for bee foraging because of its variety of wildflowers, clovers and blackberries, as well as its wooded area.
When questioned by the court, Jacob testified that the trees on Wehdes' property include the various species that provide nectar and pollen throughout the year and that the trees are "very productive."
According to Jacob, the bees generally forage within a two- to seven-mile radius of their hives. Jacob also testified that the Wehdes' meadow has varying forage all summer because of the numerous varieties of wildflowers present.
The county argued that the Wehdes' property is capable of multiple farming uses, saying the 19 acres in dispute are tillable crop land, "albeit of the least desirable class." But, the county contended, the ground is flat and its soil is "well suited to irrigated crops" such as "alfalfa hay, small grain, tree fruit, and grass-legume hay." This type of soil is also suited to timber development and may be used for pasture, the county said.
The magistrate, Robinson, ultimately supported the county's opinion that the ground was "lying idle," Gibson said.
The land left open for bee foraging appears to lack "active, purposeful, directed" employment, Robinson ruled.
"The evidence before the court is insufficient to conclude that the bees' needs prevent (the Wehdes) from actively farming,' he wrote.
"Furthermore, (the Wehdes) have not established that the cleared land on the subject property is needed by the honeybees at all."
Robinson noted Jacob had testified that the bees forage over the boundary line and in the wooded area of the subject property.
"The loss of at most 0.2 percent of their foraging field seems unlikely to impact the bees, particularly when they are able to extend their range up to seven miles," Robinson wrote.
Gibson did not attend Tuesday's hearing in Salem. A representative from the Oregon Department of Revenue argued the county's position, he said.
Regardless of the outcome of Jacob's and the Wehdes' appeal, the tax court's backlog likely means a decision will not be heard for up to a year, said Gibson, adding that he feels his office is on firm legal ground.
"The (property) was appraised and assessed according to state law," Gibson said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.