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Volume 12 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 5

Opinions of Counsel index

Agricultural exemption (gross sales requirement) (natural disaster exception) - Agriculture and Markets Law §§ 305, 306; Real Property Tax Law § 481:

The agricultural assessment program’s gross sales requirement exception for natural disasters, acts of God, and continued weather conditions does not apply to a mechanical defect in farm machinery.

Our opinion has been requested concerning the agricultural assessment program (Agriculture and Markets Law (AML), article 25-AA), specifically as to a State Board-prescribed form (RP-305 b) and an accompanying statement submitted by an applicant. The RP-305-b application was filed by applicants who claim that their land’s agricultural production was destroyed by “a natural disaster, act of God, or continued adverse weather conditions” (AML, § 305(1)(f)).

To qualify for an agricultural assessment, “‘land used in agricultural production’ means not less than seven acres of land used in the preceding two years for the production for sale of crops, livestock or livestock products of an average gross sales value of ($10,000) or more” (AML, § 301(4)). However, section 305(1)(f) of the AML, provides in pertinent part that:

if a natural disaster, act of God, or continued adverse weather conditions shall destroy the agricultural production and such fact is certified by the cooperative extension service and, as a result, such production does not produce an average gross sales value of [$10,000] or more, the owner may nevertheless qualify for an agricultural assessment provided the owner shall substantiate in such manner as prescribed by the state board of real property services that the agricultural production initiated on such land would have produced an average gross sales value of [$10,000] or more but for the natural disaster, act of God or continued adverse weather conditions (emphasis added).

This same exception is applicable to land located outside agricultural districts which is committed to agricultural production (AML, § 306(1)).

Completion of the RP-305-b application form is the procedure the State Board has prescribed for an applicant’s submission of proof that his or her lands’ agricultural production would have yielded an average gross sales value of $10,000 or more “but for the natural disaster, act of God or continued adverse weather conditions,” as required by section 305(1)(f). Here, the applicant’s contention is that a mechanical defect in his baling equipment, which allegedly delayed and ultimately destroyed his hay harvest, entitles him to the protection of the cited provision. We disagree.

Section 305(1)(f) does not define “a natural disaster, act of God, or continued adverse weather conditions,” but the New York Court of Appeals has long construed the phrase “act of God” to denote “natural accidents that could not happen by the intervention of man - as storms, lightning and tempest” (Merritt v. Earle, 29 NY 115, 117 (1864)). The Court also stated that “[t]he expression [an act of God] excludes all human agency” (ibid.). In addition, the Governor’s Bill Jacket for chapter 169 of the Laws of 1974, from which the current provision is derived, {1}  is germane to ascertaining the intended meaning of that phrase. The sponsor’s memorandum in support of chapter 169 cites as one example of the bill’s rationale the fact that “[t]he Orange County Cooperative Extension Service reports that many area vegetable farms normally exceeding $10,000 gross revenue were unable to do so because of unusually heavy rainfall during the 1972 and 1973 season, which substantially reduced the amount of produce available for sale” (reprinted in 1974 NY Legis Ann, at 65).

In our opinion, the farm machinery failure described by the applicant in his statement was not an act of God caused by a “natural accident,” but was instead the consequence of a defect in a device built by one or more persons. Accordingly, in our opinion, such a mechanical failure does not constitute sufficient cause to be deemed compliance with AML section 305(1)(f).

July 23, 2008

{1}  Chapter 169 enacted section 305(1)(g); it was re-lettered (f) in 1980 (ch 79, § 8).