• 9 Investigates: Landowners avoid property taxes for $500M in land

    By: Scott Wickersham


    MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. - The Westmoreland family has farmed land in Huntersville since the early 1900s.

    As homes and shopping malls sprang up in recent years, so did the land value, but they don't pay tax on the full amount.

    They qualify for a 1974 law to protect farmland from being gobbled up by development.

    Land can be exempt from property tax if it's used for agriculture, horticulture, forestry or conservation.

    Agriculture land has to be at least 10 acres and generate a $1,000 a year in revenue.

    In 2011, landowners in Mecklenburg County avoided taxes on half a billion dollars in land that would have brought in $5 million in tax dollars.

    One concerned viewer wrote WSOC claiming, "There are lots of Mecklenburg County property that is classified as agriculture when it is not agriculture."

    Eyewitness News checked into a few.

    At a lot on W-T Harris Boulevard valued at $3 million, Eyewitness News saw bales of hay.

    A $6 million plot on Hambright had signs of a recent harvest.

    County Appraiser Becky Gunter says it would be hard to cheat the system.

    "By state statute, we have to audit one-eighth of these every year. We do one-fourth. So you are under audit review every four years," Gunter said.

    Every case may be legitimate, but is it fair to other taxpayers?

    "So-called poor farmers are wealthy people compared to the average American," said Professor Richard England.

    England has studied these plans in other states. He thinks in some cases wealthy landowners are benefiting.

    "Why should they get a serious tax break and shift part of the tax burden to fellow citizens?" England asked. "Really what they are doing is parking the land and waiting for a good time for development, and enjoying the tax break."

    In fact, taxpayers don't have to be a farmer. They can lease the land to real farmers to qualify.

    Farm Bureau President Eddie Stroup knows the law could be getting a second look as lawmakers in Raleigh revamp taxes this year.

    "As lawmakers or county commissioners start looking for other ways to increase revenue they may do away with or modify this," Stroup said.

    But he thinks it needs to stay for families like the Westmorelands, who want to be around for another generation.

    "We'd like to farm for as long as we can," Keith Westmoreland said.

    Next Up: