In with mall, out with cows

The cows kept property taxes low. Now they'll get a, um, new purpose.

Published May 25, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL -- To them, it was just grass.

They never knew they were transients on a white-hot slice of prime Pasco real estate.

For three years, the cows stayed oblivious as controversies unfolded around Cypress Creek Town Center. Lawsuits were flung over the property. Powerful people cut million-dollar deals to decide its fate.

The cows just chowed down.

Who can blame them?

They had hundreds of acres to romp on. They had plenty of food while they hung out.

Now, as the supermall gets ready to start construction, the cows will soon be gone from the bowl of land between Interstate 75 and State Road 56.

"The cattle on the Cypress Creek Town Center site are being moved as we speak," said Deanne Roberts, a spokeswoman for the mall.

Cypress Creek Town Center got its final permit to start moving dirt last week.

The cows are already a fading memory.

Where will they go? Representatives of the mall developer, the Richard E. Jacobs Group, weren't sure, but said they would be moved to nearby pastures.

"There are approximately 200 of them on the site and they belong to a local cattle rancher by the name of Larry Bennett," said Bill Fullington, Jacobs' spokesman. Attempts to reach Bennett were unsuccessful.

J. Robert "Hi" Sierra, the scion of the Pasco ranching family who brokered the mall deal, leased the land to Bennett while waiting for the mall to get going. No comment from Sierra about the cows.

They probably were Black Angus, or Brahmin, or Hereford breeds, said Octavio Blanco, an Odessa veterinarian. Herefords are known by their white faces.

These are beef breeds. They are no pampered dairy cows. They can live with bugs and heat. They don't eat so much, and produce maybe two gallons of milk a day.

"Dairy cows can produce 10, 15, 20 gallons a day, but they eat massive amounts," Blanco said. "If you put them on Cypress Creek, they will die."

Animal rights activists looking for a cause to champion might not find much in these moo-makers.

"It's not like the mall will mean the death of the cows," Blanco said.

The mall makes no difference in the cows' ultimate destination. That would be a stopover at the you-know-what, followed by a final resting place at McDonald's or Publix.

The cows were there for a very human reason -- taxes.

Agricultural land gets what ranchers call the "greenbelt exemption."

It makes a big difference.

With the cows on the land, the estimated annual tax on Cypress Creek Town Center's nearly 500 acres was $32,329, according to the county property appraiser's Web site. The bulk of that -- $29,531 -- came from a 4-acre corner of the property that did not qualify for the greenbelt exemption.

Without the cows? $818,130.

That is why landowners lease unused property to cattle ranchers. Plus they get a ranch hand to take care of things and keep an eye on the place, said Ted Schrader, a Pasco county commissioner and second-generation rancher.

You can structure a rent deal in any number of ways, said Robert Thomas, a third-generation Hernando County rancher who also owns 3,500 acres just south of Zephyrhills.

You can charge by number of cows. Or you can charge by acreage. Or by a combination of both. Or you can offer a lower rent in exchange for the ranch hand picking up the tax.

The quality of the land makes a difference. So do things like fencing, wells and pens. The more work you expect the ranch hand to do, the lower the rent you charge, Thomas said.

By acre, a landowner could charge something between $7 and $12 an acre per year, Thomas said. The Starkey family charges about $10 for its 1, 000-acre property near New Port Richey, Frank Starkey said.

By head, it could be $90 to $120 per cow per year, Thomas said.

Out west, Thomas said, they tend to use AUMs, or "animal unit measurements," which is a fancy way of saying "per cow." In Florida, acreage is the more popular measure, he said.

Assuming $10 per acre, renting cow space on Cypress Creek Town Center would cost about $5,000 a year.

But not for long.

County planners are expecting the megamall to churn out something like $9-million a year in taxes.

So we say goodbye to Central Pasco's most blissfully ignorant tenants. They just got new landlords.

That's called moo-ving on.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.