In 1976, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted the Agricultural, Forest and Open Space Land Act of 1976 (the "Act")-the law is commonly known as "greenbelt". The Act is codified in Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 67-5-1001 through 1050. The purpose of the Act is to help preserve agricultural, forest, and open space land. This is accomplished by valuing land based upon its present use, rather than at a highest and best use. When property is valued at its highest and best use, the threat of development can bring about land use conflicts, create high costs for public services, contribute to increased energy usage, and stimulate land speculation.
The State Board of Equalization is responsible for approving the forms used to apply for agricultural, forest or open space classification. In addition, the State Board of Equalization hears appeals of denials of timely filed greenbelt applications, appeals concerning liability for rollback taxes and appeals of use value.
The State Board of Equalization approved the following Greenbelt forms pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1005 through 1007 for usage at the county level:
On October 30, 2018, the State Board of Equalization delegated authority pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-3-5103 to the Executive Secretary to approve any county specific Greenbelt Forms that are substantially similar to the state-approved Greenbelt forms. Jurisdictions wishing to use a county specific form should submit an approval request via email to Robin.Pope@cot.tn.gov.
Below are all of the county specific forms approved by the State Board of Equalization.
Is an application required for land to be classified as agricultural, forest, or open space? (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1005(a)(1), (b), 1006(a)(1), (c), & 1007(b)(1), (b)(3))
Yes. In order to have land classified as agricultural, forest, or open space, an owner must file an application with the assessor of property in the county where the property is located.
Where can I get the application?
Applications are available below under “Greenbelt Applications approved by the State Board of Equalization” and “County Specific Greenbelt Applications”. You will use the application approved by the State Board of Equalization unless your jurisdiction has received approval to use a county specific form. You may also obtain an application from from the assessor of property in the county where the property is located.
What is the filing deadline? (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1005(a)(1), 1006(a)(1), & 1007(b)(1))
First time applications for classification as agricultural, forest, or open space must be filed by March 15.
Can the assessor accept a late filed application? (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1005(a) (1), 1006(a)(1), & 1007(b)(1))
If an owner is filing to continue the previous classification, and fails to file by March 15, then the assessor can accept a late application. This late application must be filed within 30 days from the date the assessor sends notice that the property has been disqualified. A late application fee of $50.00—payable to the county trustee—must accompany the application.
Are there any fees associated with filing an application? (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1005(a)(1), 1006(a)(1), 1007(b)(1) & 1008(b)(1))
Yes. Approved applications must be recorded with the register of deeds. The applicant is required to pay the recording fee. Also, those owners who are continuing the previous classification and whose application is filed after the March 15 deadline must pay a $50.00 late fee to the county trustee.
When is reapplication required? (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1005(a)(1), 1006(a) (1), & 1007(b)(1))
Reapplication under greenbelt is not required unless the ownership as of the assessment date (January 1) changes.
What is agricultural land? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(1))
For land to qualify as agricultural, it must be at least 15 acres, including woodlands and wastelands, and either:
(1) constitute a farm unit engaged in the production or growing of agricultural products; or
(2) have been farmed by the owner or the owner’s parent or spouse for at least 25 years and is used as the residence of the owner and not used for any purpose inconsistent with an agricultural use.
Classification as agricultural (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1005(a)(3))
In determining whether any land is agricultural land, the assessor of property shall take into account, among other things, the acreage of the land, the productivity of the land, and the portion of land in actual use for farming or agricultural operation.
If land classified as agricultural produces gross agricultural income averaging at least $1,500 per year over any three-year period, then the assessor may presume that a tract of land is agricultural. This presumption is rebuttable. In other words, it is not a requirement that an owner prove this income. It is only an aid for the assessor to use. Even if the land does not produce any income, it can still qualify, as long as the land is being actively farmed.
What is gross agricultural income? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(4))
Gross agricultural income is defined as the total income, exclusive of adjustments or deductions, derived from the production or growing of crops, plants, animals, aquaculture products, nursery, or floral products, including income from the rental of property for such purposes and income from federal set aside and related agricultural management programs.
Can two noncontiguous tracts qualify as agricultural land? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(1)(B))
Two noncontiguous tracts within the same county, including woodlands and wastelands, can qualify as follows:
(1) One tract must contain at least 15 acres and the other tract must contain at least 10 acres; or
(2) Two tracts total at least 15 acres and are separated only by a road, body of water, or public or private easement.
Both tracts must constitute a farm unit and be owned by the same person or persons.
What is forest land? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(3))
Forest land is defined as land constituting a forest unit engaged in the growing of trees under a sound program of sustained yield management that is at least 15 acres and that has tree growth in such quantity and quality and so managed as to constitute a forest.
Classification as forest (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1006(b) & (c))
In determining whether any land is forest land, the assessor shall take into account, among other things, the acreage of the land, the amount and type of timber on the land, the actual and potential growth rate of the timber, and the management practices applied to the land and the timber on it. The assessor may request the advice of the state forester in determining whether land qualifies as a forest.
Can two noncontiguous tracts qualify as forest land? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(3)(B))
Two noncontiguous tracts within the same county can qualify if they total at least fifteen acres and are separated only by a road, body of water, or public or private easement. Both tracts must constitute a forest unit and be owned by the same person or persons.
Is a forest management plan required?
A forest management plan is required for land to qualify as forest. The State Board of Equalization has approved a forest management plan template. Property owners are not required to use this particular template, but applications must ultimately have a forest management plan summarizing the management practices being applied to the land and the timber on it.
Must a professional forester complete the forest management plan?
Due to the complexity of the planning process, it is highly advised to enlist the assistance of a professional forester in the development of a forest management plan. However, there is no requirement that the plan be completed by a professional forester.
Does the professional forester have to be certified or registered?
No, the State of Tennessee does not have a certified or registered forester program.
Does the Tennessee Division of Forestry complete forest management plans?
No, the Tennessee Division of Forestry does not complete forest management plans for greenbelt purposes. The Division of Forestry does maintain a directory of consulting foresters who may provide this service.
How much will it cost to have a professional forester complete the forest management plan?
Contact your local consulting forester for more information about fees.
How long is a forest management plan cycle?
Management plan cycles can vary but an update is recommended every time something has changed on the property or in the landowner’s objectives; or every 10 years.
On October 31, 2018, the State Board of Equalization approved the following Forest Management Plan template:
What is open space land? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(7))
Open space land is defined as land, other than agricultural or forest land, containing at least three acres characterized principally by an open or a natural condition and whose preservation would tend to provide the public with one or more of the following benefits found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1002(2)(A)-(E):
· The use, enjoyment, and economic value of surrounding residential, commercial, industrial, or public use lands.
· The conservation of natural resources, water, air, and wildlife.
· The planning and preservation of land in an open condition for the general welfare.
· A relief from the monotony of continued urban sprawl.
· An opportunity for the study and enjoyment of natural areas by urban and suburban residents who might not otherwise have access to such amenities.
Open space land also includes lands primarily devoted to recreational use.
Classification as Open Space Land (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1007(a))
The planning commission for the county or municipality must designate the area for preservation as open space land. Once the planning commission adopts an area, then land within that area may be classified as open space. If the planning commission has not designated an area, then this classification is not available.
What is an open space easement? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(6))
Open space easement is as a perpetual right in land of less than fee simple that:
(A) Obligates the grantor and the grantor’s heirs and assigns to certain restrictions constituted to maintain and enhance the existing open or natural character of the land;
(B) Is restricted to the area defined in the easement deed; and
(C) Grants no right of physical access to the public, except as provided for in the easement.
Do open space easements qualify for greenbelt?
Land encumbered by an open space easement may qualify for greenbelt under Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5- 1009. Only three types of easements are provided for under the Act:
(1) an easement that has been donated to the state;
(2) an easement for the benefit of a local government; and
(3) an easement for the benefit of a qualified conservation organization.
Appealing denial of an application (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1005(d), 1006(d), & 1007(c))
Any owner of property may appeal the denial of a timely filed greenbelt application. Appeal is made first to the County Board of Equalization and then to the State Board of Equalization.
Appealing rollback taxes (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1008(d)(3))
Liability for rollback taxes can only be appealed directly to the State Board of Equalization. An appeal must be made by March 1 of the year following the date the assessor sends notice that the property has been disqualified and rollback taxes are due.
Appealing use value (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1008(c)(4))
A property’s use value cannot be appealed to the county boards of equalization. To challenge the use value, a petition of at least 10 owners of greenbelt property, or a petition of any organization representing 10 or more owners of greenbelt property, must be filed with the State Board of Equalization. The petition must be filed “on or before twenty (20) days after the date the division of property assessments publishes notice of the availability of the proposed use value schedule in a newspaper of general circulation within the county.”
Acreage limit for owners of greenbelt land (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1003(3))
The law provides that no person may place more than 1,500 acres under greenbelt within any one taxing jurisdiction. The 1,500-acre limit does not apply to an agricultural classification that an owner obtained before July 1, 1984. Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1008(g) does remove, however, any forest or open-space land in excess of the 1,500-acre limit obtained before July 1, 1984.
Artificial entities-such as partnerships, corporations, LLCs, trusts, or other legal entities-are also subject to the 1,500-acre limit.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1003(3) sets forth the method for attributing acres to individuals and artificial entities and their owners.
Land owned by a person who is at the 1,500-acre limit (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1003(3))
Once an owner qualifies 1,500 acres for preferential treatment, that owner cannot qualify any additional acreage for preferential treatment.
What are rollback taxes? (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 67-5-1004(12), 1008(d)(1))
Rollback taxes are the amount of taxes saved over a certain period of time that the land qualified as agricultural, forest, or open space. These taxes are not a penalty; they are a recapture of the amount of taxes saved.
How is the amount of rollback taxes calculated? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 1008(d)(1))
They are calculated by the difference between the use value and market value assessments. For agricultural and forest land, rollback taxes are calculated each year for the preceding three years. For open space land, they are calculated each year for the preceding five years.
Who calculates the amount of rollback taxes? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1008(d)(1))
The assessor of property must calculate rollback taxes.
What is the delinquency date for rollback taxes? (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1008(d)(3))
Rollback taxes are payable from the date written notice is sent by the assessor and become delinquent on March 1 of the following year.
Additional information about rollback taxes may be found in the Greenbelt Manual.
Once property is qualified for Greenbelt, it is valued based on its present use rather than its market value which often results in a lower tax assessment and thus a lower tax bill. This use value may vary depending on the type of property as well as where the property is physically located, but recognizes the value of the property as used for agricultural, forest, or open space land rather than a potential market value. The exact amount of tax savings may vary for each property depending on the amount of acreage that qualifies for Greenbelt and what type of Greenbelt status is granted. The “use value” is set by law and may vary if the property is classified as agricultural, forest, or open space land.
As the Greenbelt program is created by law you may want to seek legal advice or tax advice when deciding whether applying for Greenbelt is the best choice for you. You may also wish to review the State Board of Equalization’s Greenbelt Manual which has many examples and helps explains portions of the Greenbelt program.
The purpose of this manual is to provide information about the Agricultural, Forest and Open Space Land Act of 1976 (the “Act”)—the law is commonly known as “greenbelt.” This manual will discuss:
- the agricultural, forest and open space classifications;
- the process of applying for a classification;
- assessment of rollback taxes; and
- the appeals process.
It is anticipated that the manual can be useful to taxpayers, county and city officials, and persons with a general interest in greenbelt.