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Resort, county settle fight over taxes

The agreement will cost county taxpayers $1-million. But continuing the fight would have been too costly, the county says.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published June 24, 2004

PALM HARBOR - Despite a vow to fight, the Pinellas County Property Appraiser has settled a longtime tax squabble with the owners of the Westin Innisbrook Resort that will cost county taxpayers $1-million.

The agreement is good news for Innisbrook's owners, who are burdened with more than $100-million of debt and in the process of handing over the resort to their mortgage lender.

Since 1998, the resort owners have refused to pay their entire tax bill, saying county appraisals doubled Innisbrook's actual value. County officials said they owed $2.2-million in back taxes from 1998 to 2002.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge James Case sided with Innisbrook in February. Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith promised an appeal, but settled in April after six years because of the cost of the case.

"I'm a fighter. I don't like to rollover," Smith said Wednesday. "But on this one, I had to swallow my pride and move on to other things. It just made sense for the taxpayers to take that settlement. It was a dollars and cents deal."

The costs of the appeal would have been significant, as well as a second, separate lawsuit involving two other tax years also pending in circuit court. Both have been settled.

For the February trial, resort owners spent $50,000 for an expert appraisal. A second trial could have meant another appraisal, and more attorney fees. Innisbrook's attorney Rob Kelley did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

"Both sides were ready to be done with it, to be honest," said Pam Dubov, Smith's chief deputy. "Everyone wanted to move on. There was going to be a long process with a lot more costs. It stopped making sense."

Smith's appraisers argued that Innisbrook, an 845-acre secluded resort off U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor, has a taxable value of about $30-million.

Innisbrook's owners, Golf Host Resorts, say the resort is worth about $15-million. They said the county's assessment is based on erroneous golf revenue expectations and double-taxing of the resort's privately owned condominiums.

After the three-day trial, the judge agreed.

"It was upsetting from the get-go for me," Smith said. "I thought it was a no-brainer. I didn't think there was any issue at all. But when you go before the bench, you never know what's going to happen."

Smith's attorneys filed their intent to appeal with Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

But in April, both sides settled instead.

As part of the agreement, Golf Host has paid $1.15-million in back taxes from 1998 to 2002, according to county records. The county was seeking more than $2.2-million in those years.

The resort's adjusted tax bill in 2003 was $532,514.

Saving $1-million on property taxes won't solve Golf Host's financial woes.

Resort owners, whose financial problems peaked after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have not made payments on their $79-million mortgage since October 2001. The resort has lost more than $53-million since 1999 and was 60 percent empty on any given day last year.

The owners also are fighting for the right to build 376 condominiums along one of its four golf courses. But Pinellas Planning Council Executive Director David Healey says Innisbrook already is overbuilt. County planners and Golf Host disagree. That is being disputed in court.

Innisbrook will receive its 2004 property tax bill this fall. The resort's taxable value has not been completed.

Appraisers met with Golf Host officials before they determined a value, Smith said. That number was sent Wednesday with the rest of the county's tax rolls for inspection to the state Department of Revenue. Neither Smith nor Dubov would release the 2004 assessment.

"I don't think we're starting out as far apart as we were in the past," Dubov said.

- Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or 727 771-4303.

[Last modified June 24, 2004, 01:00:37]


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