JACKSONVILLE — Doug Gowin, of Jacksonville, owns an 18.3-acre plot of agriculturally-exempt land that has been in his family for three generations.
Gowin's grandfather farmed it full time when it included more acreage. His father farmed it part time. Gowin planted stands of pine trees on it in 2001.
It's small by farming and timber standards, but Gowin enjoys the property tax break the timber exemption provides and can look forward to a payday years into the future.
But that exemption could be in jeopardy.
On Saturday, Gowin was one of more than 100 Cherokee County residents who attended a Cherokee County Appraisal District workshop at the Norman Activity Center to answer questions and express concerns about the district's plan to change the requirements for land with agriculture and timber exemptions.
After decades of liberally allowed exemptions, the appraisal district is tightening its qualification standards for properties that have enjoyed the tax break but may have not met the legal requirements to do so.
If Gowin loses the exemption, his property could be subject to market value and his tax bill could be 30 times higher than it has been.
"There are some people who are way more upset than me," Gowin said. "There's not one thing that the appraisal district is doing illegally but I just can't agree with some of what they're doing."
Cherokee County Chief Appraiser Lee Flowers said around two-thirds of 2,900 property exemptions could be in jeopardy of failing to meet state requirements.
The district would require landowners with agriculture exemptions to provide proof of productivity and meet state production requirements. So landowners who produce hay must provide proof they are producing hay at amounts and quality levels consistent with state and regional numbers. Cow-calf operations would be required to meet per-acre head counts consistent with production requirements, he said.
A landowner claiming his property is an orchard, but only has four fruit trees on 10 acres, won't make the cut anymore, he said.
"We're aiming to stop abuses of what's required by state law," Flowers said. "So is it a qualified production operation or that ‘I just want lower taxes?'"
The same goes for land with timber exemptions.
Landowners would be required to file a timber management plan that documents how the landowner will maintain the property to produce pine and hardwood trees for harvest. The plan must be created by Texas A&M Forest Service staff, a timber consultant or a landowner who is knowledgeable about timber production, such as tree thinning and providing a fire-break.
Flowers also set a minimum acreage requirement for both agriculture and timber exemptions — 10 acres and 20 acres, respectively.
The 20-acre minimum is Gowin's gripe. There is no official state minimum. Gowin believes the minimum should be 10 acres as several other counties and professional timber consultants he's talked to recommend.
"The 20-acre minimum discriminates against small operators," Gowin said.
The minimum comes down to how many acres a landowner can reasonably expect a profit, Flowers said, and he believes the minimum is 20 acres.
But landowners who may not qualify for the exemptions they have received in the past have another option — switching to a wildlife management exemption.
The wildlife exemption would allow landowners to meet three of seven requirements that encourage wildlife activity, including providing supplemental food, such as food plots or feeders and shelter, such as brush piles or bird boxes.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Biologist Daniel Price said there are dozens of things residents can do to qualify for wildlife exemptions. It requires effort and possible expenses to improve the environment for local and migratory species, from ducks and deer to blue birds and quail.
"Wildlife is a big umbrella," Price said. "I don't want to take your land to create a refuge. I want to help you create a refuge that helps species propagate."
Flowers said false information regarding how the wildlife exemption could inhibit property rights has been spreading since the first workshop in Wells earlier this month. Residents expressed anger and were openly hostile toward Flowers and his staff at the second meeting in Rusk.
Gowin said it "almost went wild west."
Flowers said landowners would retain all the right to keep the public off their land, run cattle or cut timber under the wildlife exemption. But activities like cutting timber, which would decimate environment for some species, would require changing the management plan to accommodate other species, he said.
Without the wildlife exemption, people with 50 acres that didn't qualify for agriculture or timber exemptions would face paying much higher tax bills. Higher tax bills could mean they would be forced to sell or forgo payment and face seizure by the county.
"I couldn't in good conscience start making people pay market value on a large tract of land that didn't really qualify for an ag or timber exemption," he said. "This is probably the best option for a lot of you. My goal is to make sure the land is being used as the law requires."
Ron Grasty, who owns 27-acres between Rusk and Palestine, has used the wildlife management exemption for five-years on his land, which sits between two large deer leases. He spends more than $1,000 each year to plant food plots and provide high protein feed for deer. But the deer aren't the only beneficiaries, he said.
Grasty said it does cost time and effort but that he benefits beyond the tax break too. He stocked his freezer with four deer this past season.
"I think most people can qualify (for the wildlife exemption)," he said. "I've been doing it for a while, so I know. But there's a lot of questions and concerns out there that I think are just based on suspicions that local government is out to get them."
Gowin agreed. He said that suspicion is likely what fed the hostility at the Rusk meeting.
The deadline to file for an agriculture, timber or wildlife exemption is May 1. But Flowers said he and his staff are mindful of the short time frame residents have to make the decision about what exemption best fits their property. As long as property owners apply and actively engaged in the process to prove they meet the requirements for agriculture use or creating a timber or wildlife management plan, he said the district would work with landowners.
"I would be tickled if everyone in this room maintains their exemption," Flowers said. "But nobody here likes abuse and that's what we're trying to address."
Landowners can contact Flowers and his staff for more information from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in person at 107 E. Sixth Street or by phone at 903-683-2296.