On a sunny June morning, the cattle at Willow Oak Farm nearly broke into a gallop as breakfast arrived on a flatbed wagon.
Roughly two dozen cows nosed for position around Thomas "Tommy" Thompson as he spread bales of hay from the wagon onto the surrounding ground.
The Thompson family farm is a throwback example of the rural lifestyle Hamptonians have left behind as the city has grown into a sprawl of business corridors and suburban subdivisions.
Hampton is among the few Virginia cities enrolled in a state program created to encourage farming by taxing farmers for the yield of their crops and the value of animals, and not by the fair market value of their land. The land-use assessment program was created by the General Assembly in 1973 as an optional tax deferral program localities could use to provide breaks for farmers who feared rising land values would force them to sell their businesses.
Thompson — a real estate developer who owns Harrison & Lear Inc. — benefits from the program more than anyone else in Hampton.
The land-use program gives substantial tax breaks to farmers, stable owners and orchards even as the Hampton City Council and staff bemoan the lack of developable land within their reach. The program defers property taxes as long as the property owners meet minimum standards, which include growing and selling vegetables or maintaining a minimum of five acres for open space.
Tax relief programs, some mandated by the state, have vexed City Council members who believe such benefits to the elderly and to some veterans are becoming an increasing burden on the city's coffers.
In May, the council agreed to remove an option for elderly and disabled residents to receive either partial or full exemptions from their real estate tax bills, leaving options to defer the tax or freeze the rate they pay.
At the time, City Council members said property tax exemptions — including one provided to some military veterans — were creating a financial strain on the city. About 25 percent of the value of all real property within the city is tax exempt, according to the assessor's office.
There appears to be no sentiment to rescind the land-use program among City Council members.
A Daily Press review of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, interviews with residents and sidewalk inspections of the properties found:
•Ten distinct property owners have enrolled 23 parcels in the program.
•Property owners own at least 74 horses, 55 cows and more than 300 chickens. Exotic birds such as peacocks and guinea fowl are also kept as pets.
•Horse stables are allowable uses, even if the property owner does not own the horses.
In 2013, those 10 property owners reduced the assessment of their land from a combined $18.9 million to $2.2 million, according to the Office of the Assessor annual report. At the time, they would have paid $196,560 in property taxes had the program not existed. Instead, they paid about $22,880.
The Daily Press reviewed more than 800 documents released by the city under the Freedom of Information Act that property owners must submit annually to remain enrolled in the land-use program. The Hampton City Attorney's Office declined to provide close to 200 pages of profit/loss statements and income tax returns for property owners enrolled in the program, citing a section of law that allows localities to withhold documents stating the income performance of specific businesses.
Farmer by heritage
Thompson owns 138 acres off Harris Creek Road valued at just shy of $8 million. Because he is enrolled in the land-use program, the city taxes him for land valued at $750,100, according to public records.
During a July 15 tour of the property, Thompson talked about his affection for the farm and how it lured him into a line of work he swore to leave as a younger man. He walks with a limp now because of a violent encounter with a bull about five years ago.
By Thompson's account, he grew up on a farm and vowed never to follow his father's path.
"My daddy wanted me to take over the farm, and I knew it would ruin my social life ... but that's what I did," he said. "It's why I'm alive today."
In fiscal year 2015, which started July 1, Thompson's 300 chickens will produce eggs he can sell, some of the 55 cows will be sold for beef and a donkey named Aunt Betty will be used at Christmastime as a prop for a church's live manger.
Thompson said he produces 10,000 bales of hay each year that he uses for the horses and cattle, and he sells the surplus. He also boards horses on the property and offers tours.
"There are some kids that come here and have never seen a cow," he said. "We want them to experience that, and it's right here in Hampton."
Because those uses are all eligible within the land-use program, he pays $9,300 in real estate taxes for the land instead of the $98,580 he would be charged without the benefit.
"If they didn't have that program, we wouldn't be able to have that farm," Thompson said. "We're barely breaking even now. Without it, (the land) would all be sold off."
Thompson has been selling off chunks of the family's property for years, turning them into residential subdivisions such as Howe Farms, Malvern and Willow Oaks. A farm that once encompassed 4,000 acres is now less than a tenth the size.
Other Hampton farms
The Wood family has owned and operated Wood's Orchard Farm Market since 1943 on what is now a commercial stretch of East Mercury Boulevard. They grow and sell produce, including peaches, peppers, tomatoes, egg plant and squash. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, picked pumpkins from the orchard when they were in town in 2011.
"We try to give (customers) a personal touch," owner Billy Wood said in an interview. "People fight through that traffic — all the way from Portsmouth and Norfolk — just to get here. We want to make sure they leave here satisfied."
The state's land-use program is vital for the business, Wood said. Instead of paying taxes on two properties along one of the city's busiest commercial corridors valued at $1.1 million, the Woods instead pay for property valued at $151,700, according to public records.
Wood said that even though the market is enrolled in the land-use program, he has peach and apple trees at his home that do not meet the city's minimum requirements, so he can't reap the benefit of the program on that parcel.
A review of records property owners must submit to be placed in the land-use program shows that some property owners simply need to own the minimum five acres and keep animals on the land.
Routten Stables on Hall Road keeps horses on 5.8 acres, according to property records. The property owner paid just $72 in real estate taxes last fiscal year for open land assessed at $233,700.
Lennie Routten's family put down roots in Hampton's Fox Hill neighborhood more than a century ago, and it's remained there since.
"We've been connected to this part of town for a very long time and we have a great deal of pride in it," said Routten, 60, during a July 24 interview. "Growing up, I could walk down the street and wave to 19 of the 20 homes I passed because we knew that many people. ... The neighborhood has changed, it's grown up a lot."
Routten said he's building a new barn on the property he has owned since 1985 and will tear down the existing one. The stable's clients all live in Hampton and are in charge of feeding, caring for and exercising the horses. The stable simply provides pasture space.
Routten said the land assessment program helps the business. "We're grateful for it."
Hampton's agriculture impact
It's unclear how Hampton's farmers affect the area's agriculture markets. Hampton's crop production was not included on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 census of agriculture.
The only Hampton Roads localities included on that census are Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, which are home to 71,298 acres of farmland.
Farmers in those Southside localities grew soybeans, forageable crops and various vegetables and housed 1,083 cattle and calves, according to the census.
In Virginia Beach, nearly 1,000 parcels totaling 22 percent of the city's' entire acreage are enrolled in the land-use program. Agriculture makes up 18,906 of the 34,153 acres in the city's program, according to the Virginia Beach assessor's fiscal year 2014 annual report.
Chesapeake enrolled 58,190 acres in its land-use program in fiscal year 2014, according to the assessor's office. Nearly all of that land was categorized as agricultural and forestry uses.
Newport News discontinued its land-use program in July 2001. The parcels that did qualify were monitored by the city Assessor's Office until the property owners met their tax liabilities, Newport News spokeswoman Kim Lee said. Those people are now charged standard tax rates like any other land owner.
Keeping farmers farming
The state program helps slow the pace of farmers being forced to sell their land because of increasing property taxes associated with suburban sprawl.
"You're looking at farmland out there that's worth $10,000 to $100,000 an acre," said Gordon Groover, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension Farm Management economist. "There's no legal crops or livestock that can produce ... a net income to make that operation possible."
Property owners enrolled in the program must apply and be approved by their localities. They must show the land is used for specific agricultural or horticultural uses, for forestry or as open space. They must sign an affidavit certifying the application is correct.
The State Land Evaluation and Advisory Council annually determines the value of properties eligible for the program based on their use and the city or county where they are located.
Property owners must still pay for the full assessed price for any improvements such as homes or barns on the properties, Groover said.
The state's land-use assessment program can be combined with smart zoning policies and comprehensive plans to buffer farms and farmers from increased costs of receiving municipal services as rural localities develop suburban bases, the economist said.
"Corn and cattle do not ride the school bus," he said. "Suburban development that's off the beaten path can get expensive quickly."
Diverse population, landscape
Despite the increasing burden of tax-exempt properties within Hampton, there appears to be little taste among City Council members to cancel the land-use assessment program.
"I'm hesitant to say it's something we should do away with," Councilman Donnie Tuck said. "Hampton isn't farming first, per say, but there are quite a few folks in the city who do have horses, which constitutes a use with this policy."
Tuck said City Council members have never publicly or privately considered the land-use benefit as an option to recover property taxes during his first four years on City Council.
Vice Mayor Linda Curtis lives down the street from Thompson's property and can hear his cows and goats "any given time of day."
"I don't think it's in anyone's best interest to pave over every inch of green space," Curtis said. "I think that's the beauty of Hampton, that we not only have a diverse population, but we also have a diverse landscape."
Mayor George Wallace said the city makes sure applicants are properly vetted before being enrolled in the program.
The city's most recognizable farm, Bluebird Gap Farm, is a city-owned park that houses about 150 domestic and wild animals.
Hampton Assessor Brian Gordineer said he has received no new applications beyond the 23 parcels since he started working for the city in 2008.
Despite the city's need for more developable land, the mayor said the market will ultimately determine whether farmers choose to work the land or sell to private developers.
City Council members who turn to the community plan will see scant guidance about how to approach farming and agriculture.
Hampton's community plan serves as the foundation document to guide the city leaders as they make planning and land-use decisions. The 210-page document passed in 2006 does not mention farming, agriculture or horticulture save for references to the city-owned Bluebird Gap Farm.
"...there will likely be more need to take a 'finer grain' look at various areas of the city that help define and guide the character and nature of potential future redevelopment efforts," according to a 2011 community plan update.
The 2011 update also does not mention the city's stance toward farming or any agrarian land uses.
"With open space at a premium and continued pressure to expand the city's economy, it will become increasingly important to refocus on redevelopment, increase densities in strategic areas, and look for other creative solutions that protect the environment while allowing for development," the 2006 plan says.
Brauchle can be contacted by phone at 757-247-2827.
Land Use Assessment Program
Which localities participate:
Isle of Wight County
James City County
City of Hampton
Cityof Virginia Beach
Which do not:
City of Newport News
City of Norfolk
City of Poquoson
City of Portsmouth
City of Williamsburg
Number of properties: 23
Assessed value: $18,971,900
Adjusted land value: $2,197,100
2014 tax bill: $104,865
2014 taxes with adjustment: $15,528
Source: Hampton property records
Agriculture: Land used solely for the production of plants and animals used for sale.
Horticulture: Land used solely for the production of fruits, vegetables, nursery and floral products used for sale.
Forested: Space devoted to tree growth in a quantity and density maintained under standards prescribed by the State Forester
Open space: Real estate used as a park or recreational purposes, land conservation, flood ways, scenic purposes or other uses considered advantageous to the character of the community.