The special tax status of 90 acres of Sarpy County woodland owned by former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson — the same property that became a campaign issue in the 2006 election — was briefly revoked, then reinstated after Nelson protested the decision.
Since 2009, the Platte River land has been taxed as greenbelt, a designation that allows land near developed areas to be valued based on its agricultural use rather than its market value.
But in December, Sarpy County Assessor Dan Pittman told Nelson he didn't see evidence the land was being used for agriculture,and he revoked its greenbelt status.
Nelson's lawyer, Pat Sullivan, appealed the decision Tuesday to the Sarpy County Board of Equalization. Sullivan said the two parcels have grazing land for sheep, donkeys and horses, and cedar trees are chopped and sold to a timber company.
As evidence, he submitted grazing and timber agreements from 2009, copies of checks for agricultural purchases and pictures of donkeys, sheep and felled trees.
The board recessed while Pittman and Sullivan huddled with county lawyers to review the material. When the board reconvened, Pittman said he had no choice but to accept the testimony and recommend approving the land for greenbelt.
“I see nothing that gives me the authority to remove (the status) based on what they provided and what the testimony was,” he said later. “I don't have anything in law to allow me to be more strict.”
The board then voted 3-1 to grant the designation. Jim Warren of Gretna was absent. Don Kelly of Papillion voted no, saying the evidence didn't persuade him that the land's primary use was agriculture.
“It's a bunch of pictures of goats and four logs,” he said in a subsequent interview. “In four years, the best they can do is produce a document that says they've produced $2,000 in (agribusiness) income? I think it's a hunting lodge.”
That was determined to be the land's primary use in 2006, when, at the height of Nelson's campaign against Republican Pete Ricketts, a tip led the assessor to remove the greenbelt status. In 2009, Nelson appealed the annual denial and won.
Sullivan said Kelly’s reasoning is based on hearsay and irrelevant information.
“I’ve sat in a bean field and hunted geese for several hours,” he said. “Our butts in that blind probably exceeded the amount of time we were sitting in a tractor or a combine. Does that mean the primary use is hunting? ... Any hunting (on Nelson’s land) is incidental to the use of the property, same as anyone else’s farm.”
The special valuation saved Nelson about $11,000 in property taxes last year, according to Pittman’s calculations.