In shift, Buddy Johnson tries to sell third of his land

TAMPA — After using a $20-a-year lease from a cow exhibitor to apply for a lucrative "greenbelt" tax exemption on his Plant City property, Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson said he was committed to keeping his land agricultural.

"Sure, I'd love the tax deduction, but I also love supporting agriculture in our community," Johnson said. "That's what I intend to do with my land."

The commitment didn't last long.

Now that Johnson has won a greenbelt exemption chopping more than $560,000 from the taxable value of his land — and slicing almost $11,500 from his tax bill — he is trying to sell some of his lots for upscale residential development.

Seven acres that Johnson leased for cattle grazing are listed for sale, according to a sign planted in the land off Thonotosassa Road. Johnson's asking price: $470,000.

If Johnson finds buyers, he'll have it both ways: He'll reap the profit from the real estate deal and keep the tax exemption, at least for this year.

"The current greenbelt status stays on the property until the end of the year, even if the use changes,'' said Warren Weathers, deputy for Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner. "If the property is sold and the use is changed, we would revisit the exemption status next year."

The tax benefit for Johnson on the lots for sale is considerable, and so is his asking price.

On Lot 6, the greenbelt exemption slashed the taxable value of the 2.5-acre property from $82,214 to $732, and reduced the tax bill for 2008 from $1,678 to $15. Johnson is trying to sell the lot for $175,000.

A partial greenbelt exemption on the 4.6-acre Lot 1 dropped the taxable value from $132,898 to $89,907, reducing the tax bill from $2,713 to $1,835. Johnson's asking price: $295,000.

Johnson says owner financing and a low down payment are available, according to the sign, which promises "exclusive residences" in the "deed restricted" Oak Creek subdivision.

It's not clear what the deed restrictions are. Johnson, 56, a former state legislator and restaurateur seeking re-election to the elections post he has held since 2003, did not respond to a phone message and an e-mail seeking comment.

Using a newly incorporated company called Fort Bully East LLC, Johnson bought the 20-acre Thonotosassa tract in March 2007 for $800,000. He financed the purchase with mortgages totaling $920,000.

Johnson had the oak-shrouded land surveyed, platted, and subdivided into six lots, and he named it Oak Creek Estates. Asked then about plans to develop it, Johnson said he had none. He said he intended to move into a decades-old, 884-square-foot home at the back of the property and hoped his family would join him.

"I am not in the development business, nor am I moving into the development business,'' said Johnson. "I plan to make the property my homestead. It would be nice if one day my (three) kids build houses on the other lots."

Once Johnson moved in, he already had neighbors — 11 head of cattle brought to the property in May 2007 by truck driver Kenneth Grimmer Jr., who had a part-time business raising cows for exhibit at Future Farmers of America shows. Grimmer agreed to pay Johnson $20 a year for grazing rights on the Thonotosassa pasture land. Johnson then used the lease to seek the greenbelt tax exemption.

In June, Turner's office granted greenbelt status to about 17 of Johnson's 20 acres, denying the beneficial tax break on part of Lot 1, property that was lowland, inadequately fenced or part of the yard and driveway at Johnson's residence.

Johnson had put the value of his entire property at the end of 2007 at $1.35-million, according to his financial disclosure. The greenbelt exemption dropped the taxable value to $137,459. The property appraiser said Johnson qualified for the exemption because his tenant, Grimmer, was involved in a bona fide agricultural pursuit.

While the pasture land may be destined to shrink, Grimmer's grazers are multiplying. Grimmer said Thursday that the 11 cows on Johnson's land are due to produce 10 calves in the next few weeks.

"It's a struggle with the fuel prices and feed prices," said Grimmer. "But if I weren't prospering out there, I'd move (the cattle) somewhere else."

Johnson, who was paid $132,414 last year, saw his finances stretched after borrowing $1.32-million to buy the Thonotosassa land and a high-rise condo in downtown Sarasota.

This year, Johnson was delinquent in paying taxes on all his properties: on the $476,800 condo, on the Thonotosassa land and on a home he had previously sold in Plant City. He caught up on all back taxes by writing checks for $10,939 in April and May.

He was unable to keep up with his condo payments, and in August a lender filed suit in Sarasota to foreclose on a $381,396 loan he used in 2006 to buy his 13th-floor Rivo at Ringling condo. Johnson said when the suit was filed that he had a contract to sell the unit, but on Thursday, the foreclosure suit was still pending.

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Agriculture all the way. Or not.

March 2007: Using the corporate name Fort Bully East LLC and mortgage loans totaling $920,000, Buddy Johnson buys 20 acres on Thonotosassa Road near Plant City for $800,000.

May 2007: Truck driver William Kenneth Grimmer moves 11 head of cattle to Johnson's property and agrees to pay $20 a year to use Johnson's pasture land for grazing.

m July 2007: Johnson files a survey and plat of the land, showing it has been subdivided into six lots and renamed Oak Creek Estates. Asked his plans for the property, Johnson says: "I am not in the development business.'' He says he will live in the dilapidated, 884-square-foot frame home on the property and "It would be nice if one day my (three) kids build houses on the other lots."

m February 2008: (Photo above) Johnson files for a "greenbelt" property tax exemption on the land, citing his $20-a-year lease to Grimmer for the 11 cows. The exemption could shave $12,000 from Johnson's tax bill.

May 2008: In an interview with In the Field magazine, which covers agricultural issues, Johnson says, "Whether you have 5 acres or a thousand acres, the purpose of the greenbelt law is to promote the production of food and the continuance of that basic and important industry. That's what I intend to do with my land."

June 27, 2008: The Hillsborough property appraiser grants Johnson's greenbelt exemption, reducing the taxable value of Johnson's property by more than $560,000. Johnson's estimated 2008 tax bill is lowered from $14,300 to $2,820.

m October 2008: Johnson puts two lots, about a third of the property, up for sale for $470,000 for the building of "deed-restricted exclusive residences." On one of the lots for sale, where the greenbelt exemption has lowered the taxable value from $82,214 to $732 — and the tax bill from $1,678 to $15 — Johnson is asking $175,000.

In shift, Buddy Johnson tries to sell third of his land 10/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 2:21pm]

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