A dispute between farmers and taxing authorities that originated seven years ago in Bedford County ended this week in Harrisburg, with Gov. Tom Corbett signing legislation that exempts light, portable greenhouses from property tax rolls.
The twin bills, which received overwhelming bipartisan support in the General Assembly, effectively nullified a 2006 Commonwealth Court ruling that affirmed Bedford County's right to tax the structures. "High tunnels" or "hoop houses," considered cheap alternatives to glass greenhouses, have spread across the country since their development in the late 1990s.
Since the Bedford County precedent, other counties and school districts have taxed the structures to help plug widespread budget gaps, experts said. The new laws cut off that option, but Bedford County officials said the long-term financial effects won't be serious.
"It's fair to say it was enticing for county governments, for assessments to look in that direction," Pennsylvania Farm Bureau Government Affairs and Communications Director Sam Kieffer said of taxing the structures.
"This way, we don't have the creep of one county doing it, and the next county maybe doesn't want to, but everyone else is doing it," Kieffer said.
The Farm Bureau joined an array of state agriculture groups in promoting the legislation.
Essentially long, clear-plastic-draped huts, high tunnels protect crops and trap the sun's heat, allowing farmers to grow crops and protect livestock during colder seasons.
They can be built in little more than a day and cost far less than permanent greenhouses.
"Growers can start their season four to eight weeks earlier in the spring and extend the season two to five weeks later in the fall," state Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, the Senate bill sponsor, said in a statement accompanying the proposal.
The question of high tunnels' tax status was first raised in 2006, when Bedford County plant nursery owner Robert S. Custer installed a used greenhouse - only to see his assessed property value increase 80 percent, from $11,000 to nearly $20,000.
Custer appealed the assessment, and a state appeals court ultimately ruled that the structures can be taxed as permanent buildings.
Since then, other county governments have considered taxing high tunnels. Erie County followed Bedford's lead, and Armstrong County officials were weighing the option, Kieffer said.
Farm groups and agriculture experts at Pennsylvania State University, where much of the high tunnels development took place, argued that the structures shouldn't be placed on par with barns and homes, which are taxed throughout the state.
"Subjecting these temporary structures to taxation places an onerous financial burden on farming families that can more than erase any profits they may realize from using high tunnels in the first place," Vogel said in April.
Other legislators agreed: Both bills passed unanimously this month, and Corbett's signature ended high tunnel taxation.
The inability to tax high tunnels won't have a major effect on Bedford County's budget set for passage Tuesday, Commissioner Steve Howsare said. The commissioners likely won't even modify expected revenue, as the effects on 2014 figures would be minimal.
The changes could be a boon, however, for those using the increasingly common structures - "a poor man's greenhouse," as a Penn State professor called them in a presentation.
"We'll let it go as is," Howsare said. "It's not like they're high-dollar structures."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.