Potential tax revenue sits under cows' noses

If local tax activist Linda Hayward and her followers really want to do some good on their next trip to Tallahassee, they should go after the greenbelt law.

As you probably know, this statute calls for taxes on farmland to be based on the land's agricultural value, not on its potential to sprout houses or strip malls.

It was passed in 1959 to provide incentive for farmers to cultivate their property rather than develop it — an idea I support 100 percent.

But that's not all it does.

Because the greenbelt law also grants agricultural exemptions to land that has been zoned for development, it lets speculators hold on to future subdivisions indefinitely while paying taxes on a fraction of their real worth.

That means, in turn, that the county is missing out on desperately needed revenue, according to a series of recent e-mails sent to Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek by Brooksville resident Richard Ross.

"This is definitely a way revenue can be gained, and we wouldn't have to cut services and we could continue to build up infrastructure,'' Ross said.

To get an idea of the money at stake, look at the county's three largest approved-but-undeveloped projects: Sunrise, Hickory Hill and Lake Hideaway, the owners of which include banker Jim Kimbrough, the Thomas family of Hillsborough County and retired mining executive Tommy Bronson.

Based on 2007 millage rates and the land's current appraisals as farmland, these owners would owe a total of $16,981 in taxes, compared with $1.1-million without the agriculture exemption.

Ross bases his argument on a section of the greenbelt law that says land should not be classified as agricultural if it "has been zoned to a nonagricultural use at the request of the owner.''

Problem is, said Jay Wood, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents Mazourek's office, the statute also says assessments should be based on the land's use.

And "without exception, the courts have adopted what I call the 'see cows test'; that is, physical use trumps everything else,'' he said.

Or, as Kimbrough said, "We certainly would not apply for anything we didn't think was legal.''

Okay, but should it be legal?

I don't think so and neither do experts such as Wood.

Changing the law to clearly exclude land that has been zoned for development — as is the case in many other states — would bring two great benefits to Florida:

Requiring landowners to pay a price for rezoning farmland would curb speculation and, I believe, sprawl.

Amending the law would also force landowners who stand to reap huge profits from the sale of development property to pay their fair share of taxes.

With all the recent clamor for tax reform, how come nobody has targeted the greenbelt law?

Probably because tax-cutting is a conservative impulse backed by voters who defend property rights and hate the idea of bloated government.

That certainly is what I heard when I joined Hayward and two busloads of Hernando residents on a lobbying trip to Tallahassee in March.

It would be great to see the same political energy attacking a greenbelt law that rewards wealthy developers. It would be great if, next time, Hayward invites Richard Ross.

Potential tax revenue sits under cows' noses 08/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 4:35pm]

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