Dykstra v. Property Valuation & Review

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                                No. 90-566

Frank and Ann Dykstra                        Supreme Court

     v.                                      On Appeal from
                                             Property Valuation
                                               & Review Division
Property Valuation
  & Review Division                          March Term, 1991

 Elizabeth Koitto, Chair

Kevin E. Brown of Langrock Sperry & Wool, Middlebury, for plaintiffs-

Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Attorney General, and Jacqueline A. Hughes, Special
  Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for defendant-appellee

PRESENT:  Allen, C.J., Gibson, Dooley, Morse and Johnson, JJ.

     GIBSON, J.   Frank and Ann Dykstra appeal from an order of the State
Board of Appraisers directing them to repay to the State $3,354.07 in tax
benefits previously received under the Working Farm Tax Abatement Program
(WFTAP), 32 V.S.A. {{ 3764-3775.  We affirm.
     The Dykstras enrolled their 267-acre New Haven farm in WFTAP beginning
April 1, 1989, and thereafter leased the property to their son Andrew to
operate as a farm.  On April 12, 1990 they conveyed all but 10.11 acres to
Joseph W. Devall, who was not a farmer within the meaning of 32 V.S.A. {
3764(5).  Mr. Devall continued the lease to Andrew Dykstra, who continued to
operate the farm.  On May 4, 1990, the director of the Division of Property
Valuation and Review notified the Dykstras that the sale to Devall triggered
conversion of the property to nonfarm use within the meaning of { 3764(2). (FN1)
Although continuing the lease to Andrew Dykstra for farming purposes
allowed the new owner to retain the property's eligibility for WFTAP, the
Dykstras had "convey[ed] property enrolled in the program by deed" and none
of the exceptions in { 3764(2) applied to their case.   Since the property
had been "converted to nonfarm use," the director sought repayment of the
benefits the Dykstras had received.  See 32 V.S.A. { 3774(a).  The Dykstras
appealed the Division's order to the State Board of Appraisers, which
affirmed the ruling, and the present appeal followed.
     The parties do not differ on the effect of a sale of enrolled property
under a literal reading of { 3764(2)(B).  A property is converted to nonfarm
use unless one of the stated exceptions applies.  The exceptions provision
of { 3764(2) states in relevant part:
           Notwithstanding the preceding, it shall not be
         considered a conversion to nonfarm use:

             (A) to convey property enrolled in the program to a
         farmer who maintains the property's status as eligible

(Emphasis added.)  Since Joseph W. Devall was not a "farmer," the exception
on its face did not apply to the transaction, and therefore, under { 3764(2)
the property was deemed converted to nonfarm use.
     The Dykstras argue that the result of this literal reading of the
statute is irrational, since nonfarmers may enroll property that is leased
to a farmer for a term of three years or more in the WFTAP program under {
3764(3).  They argue that since a nonfarmer may partake in the WFTAP program
via leasing to a farmer, conveyance from one owner leasing "eligible
property" to another owner leasing the same property in the same manner
should not trigger a conversion to nonfarm use.
     We disagree that a statute distinguishing farmer transferees of
enrolled property from nonfarmer transferees is necessarily irrational.
Legislative enactments enjoy a presumption of validity, and "if any reason-
able policy or purpose for the legislative classification may be conceived
of, the enactment will be upheld."  Andrews v. Lathrop, 132 Vt. 256, 259,
315 A.2d 860, 862 (1974).  Here, the apparent purpose of { 3764(2) is to
encourage owners of enrolled property who wish to sell their farms to
transfer them to farmers, even though sales to nonfarmers might not render
"eligible property" ineligible for WFTAP.  Appellants have not suggested why
such a legislative choice is so devoid of rationality as to overcome the
presumption of constitutionality.
     Appellants argue next that even if the statute is not irrational in a
constitutional sense, giving effect to its "plain meaning" leads to a result
that runs counter to the legislative purpose of the WFTAP program and sub-
jects appellants to unjust and irrational results.  We have in narrow and
particular circumstances abandoned the general rule that the plain meaning
of statutory language will control.  See, e.g., Noble v. Delaware & Hudson
Ry., 142 Vt. 156, 159, 453 A.2d 1109, 1111 (1982).  In that case, the
defendant railroad company appealed a Transportation Board order directing
it to maintain a fence between its property and the plaintiff's adjacent
property.  The railroad argued that the applicable statute limited Board
jurisdiction to cases in which a railroad passed through another's property,
not adjacent to it.  We held that such a construction of the statute would
create a right without a remedy and that jurisdiction in the Board was
required to render the overall statute effective.  Id. at 160, 453 A.2d  at
     The "irrational results" appellants cite in the present case boil down
to an argument that the statute unfairly distinguishes between two classes
of vendees from the owner of farmland enrolled under the WFTAP.  Reasonable
people may differ over whether such distinction is in the best interests of
a program clearly designed to promote preservation of working farms, or
whether the legislative distinction will discourage potential entrants
because it reduces incentives.  But this merely indicates that the matter is
debatable.  The plain meaning of the statute does not "clearly frustrate the
legislative purpose of the statutory scheme and produce an irrational
result."  Id.  The Board was without error.

                                   FOR THE COURT:

                                   Associate Justice

FN1.    32 V.S.A. { 3764(2)(B) provides in pertinent part:
           (2) "conversion to nonfarm use" means:
           . . . .
              (B) to convey property enrolled in the program by deed . . . .