The rooftop lawn bowling green at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis gets the same tax break as suburban farmland. So does the golf course at Minikahda Club, as does a north Minneapolis florist and a greenhouse on the city’s south side.
Under the state’s open space property tax law, land devoted exclusively to lawn bowling, croquet, polo, golf and shooting ranges is taxed on its current use, rather than its potential development value.
That is the same tax break that the Legislature has granted farmers in the path of encroaching suburban development for 40 years. The idea was to protect farmers and their land from the threat of nearby development, which could cause skyrocketing property taxes and force farmers from their land. The farm version is called the Green Acres law.
So how does a small lawn bowling green in the heart of downtown look the same as a sprawling cornfield in the eyes of the Tax Man? The answer is a bit of creative lobbying at the State Capitol.
The Brit’s tax break dates back to the 1990s. The business hired a lobbyist who got the ear of then-House Speaker Dee Long, whose district included the pub, and got the tiny provision inserted in a tax bill.
The sponsor of that measure, then-Rep. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said the provision was novel at the time.
“It was pretty unusual,” said Rest, now a state senator.
She said she added the tax break at Long’s request.
Lobbyist Kathryn Hahne said the tax break was necessary for property owners to preserve space for such uses. Without it, the lawn bowling would never be profitable enough to pay the dramatically higher taxes.
Brit’s taxable value is about $2.9 million, most of which is taxed at the full rate. The city assessor pegs the taxable value of the lawn bowling land at about $290,000, which is taxed at the lower rate. If lawn bowling ever ends, the owners must pay taxes on the full value going back seven years.
Minikahda Club, west of Lake Calhoun, gets a break on most of its property, which the assessor values at $226 million. It pays a full tax bill on about $5.6 million in remaining property.
Hahne, the lobbyist, said she believes that the open space tax break began with golf courses.
Two other businesses, a north Minneapolis florist and greenhouse, and a much larger south Minneapolis greenhouse, qualify for tax breaks the Legislature granted for agricultural use. Despite their urban settings, most of the property occupied by Crystal Lake Floral and Wagners Garden Center is considered agricultural property and is taxed at a lower rate.
Phil Murphy of Crystal Lake said winning the break under the Green Acres law didn’t come without a struggle. “We’ve been through holy hell,” he said.
City Assessor Patrick Todd said the sale of flowers to wholesalers by the business is key to the break.
At Wagners, now in its fifth generation of family ownership, the land on Penn Avenue has been used to produce vegetables and flowers for 100 years, long before homes popped up around it. It’s so far south that it was once part of Richfield Township. Much of the Wagners’ land is classified as agricultural and taxed at less than half what it would be.
Vice President Scott Wagner said without Green Acres, the company probably couldn’t afford to stay on its site.
For Brit’s, the tax break came over the opposition of the Hennepin County assessor’s office, Hahne recalled.
Former speaker Long remembered how the deal came about: “They came to me and said, ‘Can we do something about it?’ and I said, ‘We can try.’ ”
Long, who has since left the Legislature, said her role in winning the tax break has hardly made her a hero at the popular downtown bar.
“It doesn’t help me get a table there,” she said.