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Storms and Turner exchange barbs over greenbelt exemption

TAMPA — State Sen. Ronda Storms will soon get a notice from Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner's office denying her application for a tax break on land she owns with her husband.

Storms, who is running against Turner for property appraiser, is seeking what is commonly known as a greenbelt exemption, a special designation for land used for commercial agricultural purposes. For the second year in a row — their standing exemption was rejected last year — Turner's office says the land next to Storms' Valrico home is not legitimately being used for agriculture.

"It is a shame that Ms. Storms should seek a clearly improper tax break to avoid paying her fair share of the taxes that go to support our teachers, police and firefighters," Turner said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday. "This is clear evidence of how this office would be managed under Ms. Storms – tax breaks for the powerful and influential."

In an earlier email, Turner suggested the rejections, coupled with the removal of a greenbelt status on land owned by Storms' father-in-law, is a reason Storms has directed "animosity" toward his office in recent weeks.

Storms dismissed the accusation Wednesday. She has said she dropped an easy re-election bid to her Senate seat nearly three weeks ago after reading Times' stories detailing that Turner sent pornography to his human resources director. Turner once dated the woman, then fired her after she filed a complaint about his alleged advances.

Storms and Turner are running against each other in the Aug. 14 Republican primary.

If anything, Storms said, her experience jibes with complaints she's heard through the years about Turner's overly rigid application of the law and unwillingness to hear anything that runs counter to his office's appraisals.

"I'm running a challenger campaign because of things I've personally experienced with constituents," Storms said. "It's not because of my greenbelt."

Storms and her husband, David, own a landscaping business. Storms Landscaping Service installs plants and irrigation systems, usually for new homes and subdivisions.

The couple operate a nursery on roughly 2 acres next to their home where they grow and store plants for the business, though nearly half is an easement providing access to the land-locked parcel. Nurseries clearly fit under the sort of operation that qualifies for a greenbelt exemption, Storms said.

Business dropped sharply during the housing crash and is picking back up now, Storms said, estimating that about half of the property is planted with trees, palms and ligustrum, a type of shrub.

"It's not like we have two cows out there and we're trying to get a greenbelt," said Storms, adding the business has been in existence for more than 30 years. "We're not talking about 500 acres. It's not a tax break for the rich. It's a greenbelt for an agricultural operation.

"Clearly, (Turner) is paying special attention to my little acre of land," Storms said.

Photos from annual inspections of the land by the property appraiser's office since 2002 show a nursery that once had rows of plants and trees but now has far fewer, with some of what remains dead. Pictures emailed to the Times by Storms Wednesday showed that there are still some rows of planted palms and shrubs and a collection of potted trees.

Records from the property appraiser's office show that inspectors started to raise questions about whether the property still qualified for the exemption a few years ago. Last year, an inspector recommended denial.

Typically, such recommendations go to a staff committee, which votes on whether to continue the exemption or deny it, said Will Shepherd, Turner's general counsel. This one followed the usual course, he said.

"We certainly look at underlying factors," Shepherd said, citing drought as an example. "We've always been considerate of what those scenarios are. But we can only take that so long."

A greenbelt designation is not actually an exemption from taxes. It's a classification of property that keeps it valued as farmland, rather than on what might be built there, so farmers don't get taxed off their land as residential subdivisions creep near them.

When the Storms family had the greenbelt in 2010, their tax bill was $101. Without it, the bill rose to $1,629 last year.

The Times asked Turner about a week ago if Storms had a beef with his office that would explain her sharp rhetoric about him so far in the campaign. He gave a one-sentence response suggesting it was his office's denial of her greenbelt as well as the 2002 removal of greenbelt status for land owned by her father-in-law.

Storms laughed off that depiction, but with a warning.

"My father-in-law is 86 years old," Storms said. "So he better not be beating up on my father-in-law."

Turner's chief deputy, Warren Weathers, said his office got along well with Storms early in her political career, but that changed not long after her father-in-law's greenbelt status was denied.

"It seemed all of a sudden that she didn't like the office anymore," Weathers said.

Turner followed his original email with a lengthier expansion on the greenbelt issue, sent from China, where he is traveling as a representative of an international property assessor association. In it, he accuses Storms of not being interested in "what is proper or legal, only what will benefit her financially."

Storms noted that her father-in-law didn't challenge the removal of his greenbelt designation, though records show he initially appealed but didn't follow through. She pointed out that she and her husband haven't either, not because she doesn't think the decision is wrong but because it might look like a sitting senator is trying to throw her weight around.

For the record, she said she will apply again next year and, if she wins the race, she'll ask for another agency to consider the application.

She said she is offended on behalf of other nursery owners whose loss of greenbelt status may have been the straw that resulted in them closing and selling to developers. And she said she is personally insulted.

"It is hard to say which is more offensive: the fact that the Hillsborough Property Appraiser has notified the newspaper that he has denied our greenbelt application before he has extended the courtesy of notifying our family of his decision," she said. "Or that he has notified my family of the denial via an email sent to a reporter from his trip paid for by the Chinese government."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Storms and Turner exchange barbs over greenbelt exemption 06/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 1:26am]

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