Coal country sets its focus on absentee landowners
When farmers notice one of their cows has made a run for it, their first step will often be to alert the neighbors. That can be hard to do with an out-of-town owner, though.
“If the farmer can knock on a door, that’s one thing,” explains Phil Meeks, Wise County’s agriculture and natural resources extension agent. “But if he or she has to track down a property owner, that can sometimes present a challenge.”
In August, the environmental and economic advocacy organization Appalachian Voices, based in Boone, North Carolina, is partnering with the New Economy Network of Southwest Virginia to host a series of virtual community forums through October to learn what residents of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise counties think about absentee landownership and what can be done to increase local tax revenue as well as land access for neighbors, farmers and hunters.
In parts of Virginia’s coalfield region, it’s not unusual for the owners of the neighboring tracts to be absentee landowners — individuals or entities that own a piece of property but do not actively manage it. Doug Mullins Jr., Wise County’s revenue commissioner, estimates that between 60% and 70% of the land in his county is owned by corporations, a relic of the region’s mining and lumber days, going as far back as the 1800s.
Mullins’ office is mandated by Virginia statute to assess land at its fair market value. With large tracts, the cost per acre tends to run about $500, he says. Meanwhile, individuals purchasing a smaller parcel typically pay between $800 and $1,000 an acre.
“As a result, 60% to 70% of the total real estate value in Wise County is being assessed at a lesser rate and thus generating 50% less tax dollars for the services that we could be extending to our citizens,” Mullins says.
Last year, members of Mullins’ staff worked with other county employees to draft sample language for state legislation that would allow the county to consider real estate parcels larger than 1,000 acres a separate class that would be charged at a higher tax rate of $1.40 per $100 of assessed value, instead of the current rate of 69 cents per $100.
Mullins is optimistic a state legislator may adopt the bill for sponsorship during the 2021 General Assembly session. “At the end of the day, this region is going to have to start helping itself.”