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Goodrum v. Vermont Department of Taxes

Supreme Court of Vermont

November 21, 2014

Garfield Goodrum and Lucille Goodrum
v.
Vermont Department of Taxes

On Appeal from Superior Court, Windsor Unit, Civil Division Mary Miles Teachout, J.

Garfield Goodrum and Lucille Goodrum, Pro Ses, Reading, Plaintiffs-Appellants.

William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and Barbara G. Ripley and Mary L. Bachman, Assistant Attorneys General, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund and Robinson, JJ., and Maley, Supr. J., Specially Assigned

DOOLEY, J.

¶ 1. Garfield and Lucille Goodrum appeal the superior court’s decision granting summary judgment to the Vermont Department of Taxes’ Division of Property Valuation and Review (PVR) and denying the Goodrums ’ cross-motion for summary judgment on their claim that their farm buildings are eligible for enrollment in Vermont’s Use Value Appraisal (UVA) Program. We affirm. [1]

¶ 2. The undisputed facts are as follows. The Goodrums own 41.54 acres in Reading, Vermont. All but two acres of land surrounding their home is enrolled in the UVA Program as undeveloped forest land. In 2008, the Goodrums formed Turtle Hill Farm of Vermont Animal Sanctuary, Inc. (THF), a non-profit corporation whose mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, foster, and adopt out animals, including horses, chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs. The Goodrums lease four barns and two sheds to THF, which the organization uses to house, feed, manage, and otherwise care for the animals. THF is funded almost exclusively by donations, which it uses to cover its operating expenses. Most of the donations come from the Goodrums.

¶ 3. In 2010, the Goodrums applied to enroll the barns and sheds leased to THF in the UVA Program, which would exempt the buildings from property taxation, but PVR determined that the buildings were ineligible. The Goodrums appealed to the Director of PVR [2], who also determined that the buildings were ineligible. The Goodrums then appealed to the superior court, and both parties moved for summary judgment. The court granted PVR’s motion, concluding that the buildings are not eligible for enrollment because THF does not operate for gain or profit and is therefore not a farmer under 32 V.S.A. § 3752(7). The Goodrums filed this appeal.

¶ 4. “We review summary judgment rulings de novo, using the same standard as the trial court.” Demag v. Better Power Equip., Inc., 2014 VT 78, ¶ 9, ___ Vt. ___, ___ A.3d ___. Summary judgment will be granted when, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, “there exist no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Id. (quotation omitted); see V.R.C.P. 56(a).

¶ 5. The material facts are undisputed, and we need to determine only a single legal question: whether THF qualifies as a farmer under 32 V.S.A. § 3752(7). We hold that THF does not qualify as a farmer for the purposes of the UVA Program. It does not operate for gain or profit because it is not profit-driven and its revenue is derived primarily from the Goodrums ’ own donations.

¶ 6. We begin our discussion with an overview of the statutory and regulatory scheme. The UVA Program “is designed to provide a tax incentive for landowners to maintain their agricultural or forest land by taxing it at its current use value rather than the higher ‘best use’ value.” Jones v. Dep’t of Forests, Parks & Recreation, 2004 VT 49, ¶ 2, 177 Vt. 81, 857 A.2d 271; see 32 V.S.A. § 3752(12) (“With respect to farm buildings, ‘use value appraisal’ means zero percent of fair market value.”). The UVA Program accepts as eligible for enrollment

all farm buildings and other farm improvements which are actively used by a farmer as part of a farming operation, are owned by a farmer or leased to a farmer, ... and are situated on land that is enrolled in a use value appraisal program or on a housesite adjoining enrolled land.

32 V.S.A. § 3752(14).

¶ 7. The statute defines farmer as, in relevant part, a person “who earns at least one-half of the farmer’s annual gross income from the business of farming as the term is defined in Regulation 1.175-3 issued under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.” Id. § 3752(7)(A). Turning to the federal regulations, “a taxpayer is engaged in the business of farming if he cultivates, ...


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