Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.


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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Austin software company acquires second Tampa business


    Austin, Tex.-based Asure Software acquired Tampa's Compass HRM Inc. late last week for $6 million. Compass focuses on HR and payroll.

    [Company photo]
  2. Hackers hide cyberattacks in social media posts


    SAN FRANCISCO — It took only one attempt for Russian hackers to make their way into the computer of a Pentagon official. But the attack didn't come through an email or a file buried within a seemingly innocuous document.

    Jay Kaplan and Mark Kuhr, former NSA employees and co-founders of Synack, a cybersecurity company, in their office in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2013. While last year's hacking of senior Democratic Party officials raised awareness of the damage caused if just a handful of employees click on the wrong emails, few people realize that a message on Twitter or Facebook could give an attacker similar access to their system. 
[New York Times file photo]
  3. On average, a quarter of Transformation Zone staff not returning next school year


    Combined, nearly one in four teachers staffed at eight schools in the Pinellas County school district's Transformation Zone will not return to their school in the fall.

  4. New Port Richey police investigating shooting that left one man wounded

    Public Safety

    NEW PORT RICHEY — A man was shot and wounded Saturday after police said he assaulted a restaurant employee.

  5. What to watch this week: 'Still Star-Crossed' on ABC, 'House of Cards' Season 5



    Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards Season 5.