Farm tax breaks are spared

The Senate Agriculture Committee decides to study for a year changes to a law giving agriculture land tax exemptions some say are unfair.

Published April 3, 2006

ORLANDO - Walt Disney World avoids $1.5-million in Osceola County taxes each year by leasing some of its land to a farmer and claiming almost 650 undeveloped acres as timberland and swamp marsh.

An Atlanta developer accomplishes roughly the same thing with a small handful of cows and horses and a big lot of young pine trees on 850 acres in neighboring Orange County.

Some say Disney, developers and others are abusing Florida's Greenbelt Law, which provides tax breaks to farmers who own agricultural land and was in the crosshairs of state House and Senate reform bills proposed this legislative session to overhaul it.

The 1959 law, which saves Florida agriculture landowners $950-million annually, was intended to keep farmers in business, but critics say it is used to shelter developers and landholders from big tax bills on property they intend to sell or build upon.

But opposition from farmers and the political pressure of an election year have already killed the reforms. On March 21, the measure died in its first hearing after the Senate Agriculture Committee decided to postpone a vote and study the issue for a year, with potential changes next session.

"We don't feel that it's fair that these people are getting ag exemptions on these properties. Once we put it on an ag value, the rest of the taxpayers have to pick up the tab for that," said Hope McKinnon, agriculture appraiser for Osceola County.

Opponents of the reform bill, like the Florida Farm Bureau, argued there were already provisions in place to prevent abuses of the law on valuable undeveloped land.

"The Greenbelt Law has achieved exactly what the Legislature said it wanted to achieve," Farm Bureau executive director Pat Cockrell said.

Winter Garden nurseryman Monty Knox says he couldn't stay in business without state tax breaks on the 45 acres he owns around Orlando.

Knox saves tens of thousands of dollars under the Greenbelt Law, paying a fraction of the value for land he purchased a decade ago at $5,600 an acre that's now worth more than $50,000.

Disney spokesman Jacob DiPietre said the company's Osceola County land is an appropriate exemption because it's been leased to the same farmer for 50 years.

"This may be a savings of $1.5-million on this particular piece of land, but we pay more than $450-million in taxes each year," he said.

Cockrell and other opponents say they don't think the law is widely abused. Even those who want to change it say there are no hard statistics on questionable exemptions, only anecdotes.

Sen. Steve Geller, who sponsored the bill, said he used to drive by a property in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Pembroke Pines that was cleared of trees and grass but had four cows on it.

"It's clear that people have been calling Hertz rent-a-cow. They are renting cows just so they can keep the ag ... tax break. That's not a legitimate use," the Hallandale Beach Democrat said.