The Friends of the Black Forest Preservation Plan continue their fight against a large-scale greenhouse — the Minibelly greenhouse project — which was erected in Black Forest, south of Shoup Road and east of Lindsey Lane.
According to the March issue of The New Falcon Herald, the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners approved the project in a 3-2 vote March 18, 2014. The article states that the applicant, Black Forest Mission LLC, has already constructed one of the three planned facilities, each measuring about 21,000 square feet.
The Friends of the Black Forest Preservation Plan filed an appeal to the BOCC’s decision, claiming the board abused its discretion when it deemed the Black Forest Preservation Plan as “advisory” rather than “mandatory,” allowing a commercial-type greenhouse to be built in an area zoned as rural residential.
On Nov. 19, 2014, Michael McHenry, an EPC district court judge, upheld the BOCC’s decision approving the plan, quashing the initial appeal of the decision.
Leif Garrison, member of the Friends group and resident of Black Forest, said the group is appealing McHenry’s ruling through the Colorado Court of Appeals. If that appeal goes through, McHenry will be directed to reverse his decision and enter an order overturning the commissioners’ decision to approve the project, he said.
The Court of Appeals is currently collecting evidence from the previous decisions, including the transcripts from the hearings of the EPC planning commission and the BOCC, Garrison said. Once the information has been collected, the court will set the schedule for the hearing. “I would expect that we would definitely see it this spring,” Garrison said. “It could really come any time, probably within the next three months.”
Michael O’Malley, owner/operator of the Minibelly greenhouse project, said, “I think the appeal is a poor waste of nonprofit dollars to fight something that’s already been approved by the BOCC and a court of law.” The financial cost to the Friends group is equal to what he has had to pay to defend the project, O’Malley said. “I’m not taking donations; I’m using my family’s money,” he said.
O’Malley said he and his business partner, Ben Honken, received a loan from Mike Mandt, owner of the 41-acre plot and Black Forest Mission, for the initial start-up costs. He and Honken have to pay back the loan through the profits they make from wholesaling their crops, O’Malley said.
After a career in the military, O’Malley went into farming. “The growing seasons in Colorado are really short,” he said. “If you’re going to grow things effectively, you have to do it in some type of controlled environment.” Currently, Minibelly only grows tomatoes because they wanted to initially perfect one crop, and tomatoes were the easiest, he said.
According to the March NFH article, the Friends group concerns were the “zoning of the property where the greenhouse is located; the scale of the project, including the size of the three facilities; and the intent of the project.”
O’Malley said he and Honken would have needed to get a variance from the county to build a commercial greenhouse in a commercially zoned area. “What we needed for this area was a special use permit, which said that this greenhouse is an allowed use that doesn’t conflict with any other uses that are already in the area, and that we matched the other conditions for the permitted area,” he said. “We met those conditions.”
At the meetings, some people have said the Minibelly structure is an eyesore, But O’Malley said it does not block anyone’s view of Pikes Peak; and the scale of the project is within the constraints of county regulations. “If people want to see our greenhouse, they have to actively look for it on my property,” he said.
The intent of the greenhouse has been misunderstood, O’Malley said. “A production greenhouse, which is what we are, is where we are just producing things and distributing them,” he said. “A commercial greenhouse is where the public comes in and engages in commerce or retail activity on the location.”
O’Malley recognizes the concerns about the BOCC’s approval to allow the project to expand to three facilities, but he said the expansion is years aways, if ever. The expansion is largely determined by how much water three facilities would consume, he said. The Colorado water court approved a certain amount of water consumption for the project, and O’Malley said expanding the project could exceed that amount. The two additional facilities were included in the permit so that expansion would be possible, he said.
Garrison said the Colorado Court of Appeals will consider the ramifications for the entire state, not just El Paso County. “We feel we’ve got strong issues on appeal, and we are comfortable that we now have a group that is interested in statewide policy, with a statewide impact,” he said.
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The old adage “the check is in the mail” could hold true for some Colorado taxpayers this year, even those who requested direct deposit for state income tax refunds. On Feb. 27, the Colorado Department of Revenue announced it would issue paper checks instead of direct deposit for some state income tax refunds, as a measure to combat tax refund fraud.
Ro Silva, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue, wrote in an email, “Making this change is intended to prevent criminals from easily diverting fraudulent refunds to their own prepaid, re-loadable cards or debit cards.” Receiving a paper check does not necessarily mean a taxpayer’s identity has been compromised. If the DoR suspects a fraudulent filing, it will send a letter to the taxpayer.
Tax refund fraud as a result of identity theft continues to grow in the digital age. Electronic filing options have made it easier for scammers to file fraudulent federal and state tax returns and abscond with refunds. This type of fraud affects individuals, as well as taxpayers who foot the bill for billions of dollars in losses each year. In 2013, the Internal Revenue Service issued an estimated $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Stolen information leads to stolen refunds
As reported in an article (“Hacked! The growing problem of credit and debit card fraud”) in The New Falcon Herald in February, data thieves use a variety of methods to illicitly obtain personal information. With social security numbers, names and addresses in hand, fraudsters create and file false tax returns, funneling refunds to their own bank accounts or to prepaid debit cards.
Karen Connelly, IRS spokeswoman, said the agency is not always able to identify how personal information is stolen. “It’s an ongoing problem, and the thieves seem to get more cunning every year,” she said. “Once (a method) stops working, they’ll try something else.”
According to a January 2015 GAO report, criminals are able to exploit IRS processes because the agency issues refunds after a cursory check of selected information, instead of holding refunds until all information is verified. Because taxpayers expect quick refunds, the IRS issues them before matching tax returns to third-party information such as W-2 data, which employers often submit late in the tax filing season.
Victimized taxpayers might not know their personal information was used until they receive notice that tax returns have already been filed in their names. Connelly said, “Often the first time someone becomes aware that their information has been stolen or compromised is when they file their return.”
According to the IRS website, other tip-offs to tax-related identity theft include the following:
- A taxpayer owes additional tax, has a refund offset, or is subjected to collection actions for a year in which a tax return was not filed
- IRS records indicate the taxpayer received more wages than were actually earned, or received wages from an unknown employer
- State or federal benefits are cancelled because the IRS received information reporting an income change
Security of systems and software
Have IRS systems ever been breached? Connelly emphatically answered, “No; never.” Likewise, Silva wrote, “Colorado Department of Revenue accounting systems and the Department's free e-file service Revenue Online have not been compromised. The cases we are investigating are cases of persons trying to commit refund fraud using information they have obtained through other means.”
In February 2015, the FBI began an investigation after 19 states, including Colorado, detected a surge of suspicious returns filed using TurboTax software. Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, temporarily suspended state tax return filings, as it investigated the problem with the help of a third-party security firm. According to an Intuit Feb. 6 press release, the suspicious activity “did not result from a security breach of its systems and that the information used to file fraudulent returns was obtained from other sources outside the tax preparation process.”
H&R Block issued a press release the same day: “We have no indication this issue exists with H&R Block online state returns.”
Combating tax refund fraud
Connelly declined to speculate on any potential policy or procedural changes the IRS might be considering, but she said the agency has improved filters and instituted other methods to combat tax fraud and identity theft. A January 2015 IRS press release reported the agency’s “aggressive” efforts have stopped 19 million suspicious returns and protected more than $63 billion in fraudulent refunds from 2011 through October 2014. During filing year 2013 alone, the IRS prevented or recovered $24.2 billion in fraudulent refunds related to 4.1 million returns.
Prosecutions of people who steal identities and refunds are also on the rise. In fiscal year 2014, the IRS initiated 1,063 criminal investigations related to identity theft tax fraud, down from 1,492 in 2013; but still more than three times the number of investigations opened in 2011. In 2014, 748 jail sentences were doled out for this type of fraud, up from 438 in 2013.
At the state level, Silva said the Colorado Department of Revenue fraud detection efforts had identified 369 fraudulent filings as of March 20 — 55 of those were discovered through the process of converting direct-deposit refunds, which were supposed to be downloaded to debit cards, into paper checks.
Connelly said IRS commissioners met with representatives from the tax industry March 19 to share ideas on tackling fraud. According to the Wall Street Journal, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen announced at a press conference following the meeting that three groups would be set up to enact changes before next year’s filing season.
Taxpayers can help
Individuals must continue to protect their information as best they can, especially Social Security numbers and individual taxpayer identification numbers. “Be really vigilant about your personal information,” Connelly said. She suggested that people avoid carrying social security cards in their wallets and secure personal and financial information that are stored at home, especially when visitors or workers are expected.
Other tips from IRS.gov:
- Don’t provide a Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number just because someone asks for it. Give it only when required.
- Check credit reports annually.
- Carefully review Social Security Administration earnings statements annually.
- Protect personal computers by using firewalls and anti-spam/virus software, updating security patches and changing passwords for Internet accounts.
- Never give out personal information to anyone who solicits it by phone, email or text.
- Beware of telephone, email and social media scams involving someone who claims to be from the IRS. The IRS will not initiate contact with taxpayers by telephone, email, text messages or social media accounts. Agents will never call to demand immediate payment for taxes owed, demand payment without providing an opportunity to question or appeal the amount owed, require payment by prepaid debit card, ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone or threaten arrest by local law enforcement.