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Originally published Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Will 835% tax increase drain life from Seattle's last working farm?

The teens lolling at the corner, their jeans drooping halfway down their butts, do a double-take as Lisa Sferra goes by. So do the SUV drivers...

Seattle Times staff columnist

The teens lolling at the corner, their jeans drooping halfway down their butts, do a double-take as Lisa Sferra goes by.

So do the SUV drivers. And the African immigrant kids playing on the sidewalk in bright clothing.

One man pulls over and gets out when he sees her.

"Now that's the way to travel," he beams.

"I think I was born in the wrong century," she says.

Sferra, 37, is taking me on an "urban trail ride," a horseback tour of the Rainier Beach streets and greenways where she grew up.

The place is a cemetery of old dead farms.

"They used to keep horses at that house there," she says, pointing from the back of her Welsh pony, Scarlet. "And there were horses there, and over there, too. We're about the only ones left now."

Sferra, along with her mother, Gloria Sferra, runs a 20-acre horse farm surprisingly located in the city of Seattle. Sferra says it is the last of the large, working farms left from an era when much of South Seattle was agricultural.

Visiting the farm is like time traveling. You come up out of the concrete valley where the light-rail line is going in, with its fast-food joints and Asian strip malls, and by the time you're greeted at the entrance by the Sferras' pregnant cow it feels like decades of what we call progress has ebbed around you.

"It's country livin' in the city," says Earl Smalls, 60, who owns a three-lot subdivision across the street. "You have to know it's here. It's so peaceful that nobody messes with it."

Nobody was messing with it, anyway.

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A few months ago, the Sferras received a startling letter in the mail, courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities. The city has revised its rates for its yearly drainage tax, money you pay on your property-tax bill for the pipes, culverts and swales of the stormwater system.

The city raised the Sferra's drainage tax by an astonishing 835 percent. That's not a misprint. The Sferra's drainage bill went from $881 in 2007 to more than $8,200 in 2008.

It's the biggest percentage boost in a tax or fee I have ever heard of. The Sferras still can't believe it's not an error.

"We paid it this year," Lisa Sferra said. "I can see paying it next year if we have to. But I don't know how we can sustain paying that big of a fee year after year forever."

It's no mistake, city officials say. The rates were adjusted so that residential lots no longer are taxed a flat drainage fee. As lots get larger, the fee goes up. City utility officials say they were unaware when they set the new rates that anyone owned such a huge piece of land, let alone that there was a working farm in the city.

Still, they defended the new tax. They said the Sferras were undertaxed for drainage before. Anyone with that much land should pay a lot more than typical single-family homeowners.

OK. But to me, a sudden, nearly tenfold jacking of a tax is outrageous. A city simply can't expect any business or citizen to be able to endure that.

Nothing they can do about it, city officials said.

"It is a big change for them, but it just goes to show how good of a deal they have been getting for so long," said utilities spokesman Cornell Amaya.

So I guess the Sferras should feel grateful?

Amaya said 51,000 Seattle homeowners are seeing lower drainage fees under the new plan. The entire program — to raise millions more dollars for stormwater control — is vital for clean water and the environment, the city says.

Amaya said only the City Council can change the Sferra Farm's rates.

Ironically, Lisa Sferra says she may have to pave more of the pastoral setting in order to generate enough economic activity to pay the drainage tax, as well as all the other usual costs. She is mulling building an indoor riding arena. Or a commercial dog kennel.

It's too bad, because the joy of the Sferra Farm is how ramshackle and out-of-its-time it is. The philosophy there is that riding horses shouldn't just be for elites, so they try to keep costs low.

"The only rational way to make money here would be to sell it off to developers," Sferra says.

But it's the home her Italian great-grandparents settled in 1919. And she loves horses, especially the idea of preserving horse culture in the city. So when the developers come calling — which is often — she always says no.

"It frustrates me that after nearly a hundred years, a government fee could end up being the thing that threatens this place," she said.

Frustrating, yes. And so very Seattle.

I can just picture it. As the bulldozers are plowing under the old yellow barns and the corrals to make way for a 400 town-home subdivision, and we're all hand-wringing the loss of Seattle's last farm, with its pastures and winter ponds and woods, at least we'll be able to tell ourselves this:

We did it for the environment.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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