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Ardrossan homeowners qualify for local reductions, too — courtesy of programs to save farms

Dozens of properties at the former Ardrossan estate are covered under state abatement schemes, including the Act 319 “Clean and Green” program, that give landowners local tax breaks for farmland.

Helen Hope Montgomery Scott leans down to give a kiss to one of her beloved dairy cows. Before her death in 1995, Scott oversaw a herd of up to 340 cows at Ardrossan. Now, a smaller herd helps newer residents there qualify for tax breaks.
Helen Hope Montgomery Scott leans down to give a kiss to one of her beloved dairy cows. Before her death in 1995, Scott oversaw a herd of up to 340 cows at Ardrossan. Now, a smaller herd helps newer residents there qualify for tax breaks.Read moreJOAN FAIRMAN KANES

Thanks in part to 60 cows that they don’t have to wrangle, many of the wealthy homeowners who dot the sprawling acreage of the former Ardrossan estate have found a way to qualify for local tax breaks along with federal reductions.

That’s because the owners are taking advantage of state laws that permit them to pare down the property taxes owed to Delaware County, Radnor Township, and Radnor schools by registering their land as farms.

The tax breaks under state law are open only to parcels at the former estate larger than 10 acres. For lots under that size, the nonprofit that owns the land is arguing in Delaware County Court that it shouldn’t be taxed at all because restrictions on development have stripped it of all value.

Delaware County solicitor William F. Martin is fighting back, at least about those smaller lots.

Such property owners “are enjoying open spaces, and buffers between them and the world in perpetuity,” he said. “I believe there’s value there.”

» Read the investigation: How the ultrarich carved up a famous Main Line estate — and qualified for big tax breaks

Still, at least two dozen parcels — accounting for more than 40% of the former estate’s acreage sold by Eddie Scott’s businesses — are successfully enrolled in state agricultural-protection programs that qualify owners for tax cuts, according to an Inquirer analysis of Delaware County records obtained under the state’s Right to Know Law.

Those owners have seen their realty taxes reduced by an estimated total of $490,000 this year, a 30% reduction from the $1.6 million they would have owed without the discount, the analysis shows.

With some of those properties enrolled in the programs since at least the early 2000s, total savings to property owners over the years will have reached into the millions.

That has put a heavier burden on other property tax payers in Delaware County, where many towns have more in common with the middle-class neighborhoods in HBO’s Mare of Easttown, set in the county, than with the world of The Philadelphia Story.

“It begs the question of, ‘Is it appropriate for other taxpayers and school districts and municipalities to essentially pay higher taxes to subsidize people buying these properties?’ ” said Timothy W. Kelsey, a Pennsylvania State University agricultural economics professor who has studied the state farm-preservation programs.

Act 319, better known as “Clean and Green,” and Act 515 are statewide agricultural-conservation programs enacted in the 1960s and 1970s.

Critics such as Kelsey have questioned the fairness and efficacy of the programs. A 2018 series by the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown found that the programs’ lax oversight and flexible rules were resulting in billions in losses to counties and townships, as millionaire homeowners and businesses with tenuous connections to agriculture reaped big breaks.

The programs tax land for what it is worth as a working farm and not what its value would be if sold on the open market for housing, strip malls, or offices. Under Act 319, by far the most commonly used of the programs at Ardrossan and elsewhere, the land has to have been previously used for agriculture. It must only produce $2,000 a year in farm goods — a figure that even some advocates acknowledge is low.

The enrolled properties at Ardrossan are assessed at about $140,000 an acre. That valuation puts them at the bottom 5% of property assessments on a per-acre basis across Delaware County, according to an analysis of county records.

The Ardrossan parcels are registered as being in active agricultural use, according to county records.

That doesn’t require that the applicant homeowner actually be a farmer. Which brings us to the 60 Black Angus cows of Ardrossan.

They are raised on various Ardrossan properties by Richard Billheim and his wife, Kate Wolff, who live in a farmhouse on the property. Wolff said she knew of no other farming on the tract.

“We do our farming on people’s homes basically,” Wolff said.

Billheim has been raising cows on estate land his entire life, beginning alongside his father, who had tended the far larger dairy herd of Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. After those Ayrshire dairy cows were sold following Scott’s death in 1995, Billheim worked out a deal with the Scott family to raise his own herd of beef cattle on the property, then continued doing so as the land was sold off, Wolff said.

Their operation, Fern Valley Farm, also grows 50 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans in spots on the former estate, while harvesting some 250 acres of the tract’s greenery for hay, Wolff said. Their cows continue to graze on the remaining 70 acres of pastureland there, Wolff said.

On a recent afternoon, a few small clusters of cows could be seen on occasion on hillsides, keeping their distance from the tract’s palatial homes.

Property owners “like it, and it helps us continue our farming operation,” Wolff said. “Everybody gets to benefit from this.”

Some properties in the most-recently-sold section of the former estate may not be enrolled in the programs for a simple reason: Most of them are smaller than the 10-acre minimum to enroll.

But now, litigation is being pursued in a bid to avoid taxes on some of those properties entirely.

The 13 parcels in question are owned by North American Land Trust, the conservation group that enabled Eddie Scott to offer federal tax breaks to his buyers.

It bought some of the Ardrossan lots from Scott in part by using cash given to it by Ardrossan owners, NALT president Steven Carter said. Donors of cash or land could have sought tax deductions for those gifts. It received others as donations.

The land trust then signed a pledge to forever ban development on those parcels.

While the appeal was filed in NALT’s name, Carter said it had no preference in the outcome of the case. Still, he said, the organization supports the effort “in the interest of partnership.”

It granted responsibility for enforcing that ban — and for paying any taxes levied on the properties — to Ardrossan’s property owners association, which is managed by Scott.

Last year, the lots were assessed as having zero taxable value, records show. But the tax bills Scott received for the properties this year, after a countywide reassessment, pegged each property as being worth at least $229,000.

NALT unsuccessfully appealed the assessment to a county board, arguing that the covenant with the property owners association barring development on the properties means they shouldn’t be taxed.

It then appealed that rejection to the county court.

“Since various open space lots are restricted from development by a recorded covenant and others are exempt by law from real estate taxation, we believe that it is inappropriate that the restricted open space be assessed for real estate tax purposes,” NALT attorney John Snyder said.

Martin, the county solicitor, dismissed that argument.

“I don’t believe the premise that if you can’t develop the land, it’s ipso facto worthless,” he said.