Betts Island Oyster Farms LLC v. City of Norwalk
Absent evidence of a change in use from farming to nonfarming, a municipal assessor may not be allowed to change an exemption on the basis that the original exemption was wrong. Between 1999 and 2005, Norwalk classified Betts Island, which is located in Long Island Sound, as farmland that was entitled to an exemption. In February 2007, the municipal tax assessor concluded the earlier decision to classify the island as exempt was wrong and informed the plaintiff property owner that the island was not exempt. The plaintiff appealed, arguing there were no transfers of ownership or changes in use of the property since the farm exemption was granted. The assessor claimed that he declassified the property because there was no evidence of buildings used exclusively for agriculture, there was no farm equipment, and the amount of property was insufficient for an active farm operation. The assessor concluded that the farm was a hobby, as opposed to a business, and that the property was located in an Island Conservation zone that did not permit farming. The taxpayer's property declaration indicates that the taxpayer owns farm equipment and tools valued at $509. The plaintiff's agent, Fred Lovejoy, testified that he works the farm on weekends and that the property includes approximately 115 fruit trees, 30 blueberry bushes, assorted raspberry and blackberry bushes, asparagus and beehives. In 2005, 400 pounds of honey were produced. There was no dispute that the production of honey qualifies as a farm activity. Connecticut General Statutes §12-107b(1), which defines "farm unit" as any "tract of land, including woodland and wasteland," does not include a minimum requirement for an amount of property. Actual use of property controls eligibility. C.G.S. §12-107c requires that the assessor consider the amount of property, "the portion thereof and actual use for farming, the productivity of the land, the gross income derived therefrom, [and] the nature and value of the equipment used." The court found that the 2007 change in classification was illegal. "[G]rounds for denial," wrote the court, "can only be sustained if there was in fact a change of use from farming to nonfarming."