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Land conservation amendment may have loophole

TALLAHASSEE — Florida voters will be asked Nov. 4 to cut taxes for property owners who set aside vast swaths of land for conservation.

But tucked into an independent analysis of Amendment 4 is this small but jarring caveat that suggests the ballot measure might not be quite so simple:

"As with any proposal, the devil will be in the details," wrote Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit policy group.

Among the unsettled details: Can an owner get a tax break, then develop the land once the real estate slump ends?

Amendment 4 has overwhelming support, including from TaxWatch and environmental groups. But some observers are mindful of past abuses with tax incentives — like parking a few cows on land to claim an agricultural or "greenbelt" land classification.

"The fear is that a developer will just hold land and get a tax break, then later develop the land," Kurt Wenner, TaxWatch's director of tax research, said in an interview Thursday.

The amendment has two parts. The first would eliminate all property taxes on land that is set aside in "perpetuity" and has distinct conservation attributes.

The second, and less noticed provision, would reduce property taxes for owners who agree to set aside their land for a shorter period of time. Property appraisers would have to assess the parcel based on "character of use," not its full potential.

That could be a great advantage to landowners such as St. Joe Co. The company's lobbyist was a key player in getting the measure on the ballot.

The details — including how long land would have to be conserved — would be up to the Legislature to decide.

"If anything, we think this is going to be less subject to abuse than greenbelt," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida, one of many groups promoting the amendment, which would need 60 percent voter approval.

The proposal has the potential to take millions of dollars of value off the tax rolls, particularly in rural counties, though how much is unknown.

A coalition of environmental groups said it would advocate that lawmakers require landowners to commit to at least 10 years under the temporary conservation program. It also wants the landowner to submit a yearly plan identifying the wildlife habitat and water resources. And it recommends that anyone who backs out early should be required to pay a penalty.

Similar protections and penalties would be sought for the permanent easement.

Preston Robertson, vice president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, says most of the land that would be transferred to the new program is already getting a tax break under an agricultural exemption.

Under Amendment 4, owners wouldn't have to go through the step of putting cows on the land or planting pine trees.

"If they want to keep the lower tax rate, they are going to do something that promotes conservation," Robertson said, adding that the new classification would be long term, not year to year like the agricultural classification.

"Now there could be cows on the land one year and a Wal-Mart the next," he said.

Robertson said the amendment was his idea. He owns an 81-acre farm in Gadsden County that he wants to put into a full conservation easement, but realized that would take a change in the Florida Constitution.

Robertson said he brought the idea to Brian Yablonski, who was a member of the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which placed Amendment 4 and other measures on the ballot.

Yablonski is also a lobbyist for St. Joe Co., the largest private landowner in the state. Earlier this year, while the amendment was being discussed, Yablonski acknowledged the company could one day benefit but said he was pushing it for environmental groups.

A St. Joe spokesman did not return calls this week seeking comment.

. FAST FACTS

Amendment 4 ballot language

Requires Legislature to provide a property tax exemption for real property encumbered by perpetual conservation easements or other perpetual conservation protections, defined by general law. Requires Legislature to provide for classification and assessment of land used for conservation purposes, and not perpetually encumbered, solely on the basis of character or use. Subjects assessment benefit to conditions, limitations, and reasonable definitions established by general law. Applies to property taxes beginning in 2010.

Land conservation amendment may have loophole 10/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 6:59pm]
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