Law Allows Major Property Tax Shift For Some Vacant Land

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A piece of land on Topeka's west side led 13 News to discover an interesting fact about the state's property taxes and how some people are getting what might be considered a tax break.

Neatly rounded bales of hay are a common site around the Kansas countryside this time of year. But they recently turned up, dotting the landscape of a the decidedly urban lots around the WIBW-TV studios, west of 6th and Wanamaker.

A couple weeks ago, the vacant commercial lots were covered with long grass that obviously violated city code, which requires grass to be mowed once it hits 12 inches.

The lots are owned by the Menninger Foundation. In summer's past they'd been mowed. When the grass grew this year, 13 News contacted the real estate company managing the land, who told us it was being baled.

The move turned the lots into land being used for agricultural purposes. Shawnee County appraiser Mark Hixon explained that makes a major difference in their tax bill. He says property taxes can be assessed, not necessarily based on how a piece of property is zone, but on its primary use.

The large lot that runs from WIBW to the Kansas Bankers Association property is almost 11 acres. Hixon says vacant lots are taxed at 12 percent of fair market value. A commercial property at that location averages $4 a square foot. On that basis, the tax bill for this land would be $34,601.60 a year.

However, an owner can use a property for a less-intense purpose than that for which it is zoned, with agriculture considered the least-intense useage. The law then allows a property owner to either appeal their tax bill or notify the county appraiser the land is being used agriculturally - regardless of how it is zoned - to claim the less-intense property tax rate.

In the case of the 11 acres between WIBW and the Kansas Bankers Assocation, it brought the bill down to just $23.11, a difference of $34,578.49 to Shawnee County. For all five lots around WIBW-TV, the agricultural use tax totals $58.70, instead of the market value rate of $83,443.40.

It's not the only property using the lower rate. Hixon says the vacant lots along Arvonia place, behind Sam's Club, also pay the agricultural rate.

Hixon says he believes the legislative intent was to help developers have the lowest-possible carrying cost for property in transition from vacant to being developed for commercial use.

Property owners usually must submit some evidence of the agricultural use to the appraiser's office to have the lower rate approved. Hixon says his office has denied claims in the past, however, the property owner can appeal the decision to the Board of Tax Appeals. When that has happened, he says, the burden of proof for the property owner is so low, the property owner usually prevails.

Hixon says the issue has been raised with the legislature, but they have not acted on it.