Man sees profit growth in trees
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
The 6-inch shoots lining the furrows are scarcely visible from County Road 486, but these slash pine seedlings someday will become larger trees.
Late last year, Citrus Hills filled 55 acres along CR 486 with the seedlings. Similar sprouts cover 35 acres around the Brentwood entrance and 65 acres in Clearview Estates, near State Road 44.
The newly planted fields are not just green space or a buffer between residents and busy roadways, however. They are tree farms that Citrus Hills developer Steve Tamposi hopes will generate some income -- and maybe even a tax break.
"We have no immediate plans to develop those properties that we planted the trees on," Tamposi said. "It's kind of a way to utilize the property before we're ready to actually develop it."
The plan makes good business sense: Fill undeveloped lots with pine trees, qualify for a significant tax break for farmers and grow a product that could fetch a profit on the lumber market.
Whenever the day comes to sell or build on those properties, something Tamposi sees 10 or 20 years down the road, he can simply clear the trees and develop the site as planned. At that point, he would no longer have the agricultural tax break for that land.
"Any developer looks to have the highest and best use of his property," Citrus Hills attorney Eric Abel said. "To the extent you can keep your taxes lower and, even more importantly, have any chance for commercial gain on your property, that is the goal."
Profiting from the pines is years away, as the trees must be at least 18 years old to be worth selling, state Division of Forestry supervisor Erin Albury said. But the tax break could be available almost immediately.
Citrus Hills applied last month for an agricultural classification on the 155 acres where the baby trees are taking root. The Property Appraiser's Office will decide by June whether to grant part or all of the request.
If approved, the farming classification would reduce the taxable value of the six parcels from roughly $2.25-million to around $850,000.
The bottom line: Citrus Hills could save about $25,000 in property taxes every year, according to data provided by the Property Appraiser's Office.
The greatest savings would come from the 55 acres along CR 486, where the taxes would drop from more than $20,000 to less than $1,000.
"Most developers use their lands to the best they possibly can, and this is a great example of being able to use an asset that is not ready for development for something that is positive and aesthetically pleasing," Tamposi said.
Residents also praised the budding farms, saying a field of trees is a better neighbor than a blank or fully developed lot.
"It will quiet down the noise from the highway, I'm sure," said Jim Hollis, eyeing the field that sits between his Meadowview duplex and the buzz on CR 486. "Having trees there would be better."
"Anything is an improvement when there's nothing there," said Brentwood resident Dorothy Weiss, whose home faces a grassy expanse.
County doesn't mind agriculture on land
Property Appraiser Ron Schultz said it is not unusual for residential developments to maintain pockets of farming land. Pull into Riverwood Ranch, a community east of U.S. 19 and north of Crystal River, and a row of houses faces cattle pastures and timberlands.
Citrus Hills is no stranger to farming, either. Five years ago, watermelon fields filled hundreds of acres in the Hampton Hills and Clearview sections of the development, Abel said.
Tamposi also has tree farms in other areas, including a 1,700-acre farm in Dunnellon, where he grows the same type of slash pine trees he planted in Citrus Hills.
"They really are the best pine trees," he said. "They're rust-resistant, genetically improved trees."
But farming tax breaks in residential areas can be tricky, as Schultz can attest. Several years ago Schultz squared off against some Sugarmill Woods landowners who, he said, lost their agricultural classification when they removed cows from their pastures. The landowners said they had only moved the cows temporarily.
The state Supreme Court ruled that, as long as the county did not enforce a new type of land use on the property, Schultz could not take the agricultural tax break away from the landowners.
Schultz said if property is used for agriculture, whether it's cattle or trees, and the site is large enough for the farm to be "economically feasible," the landowner likely would receive the tax break.
"As long as the individual says, "We are a bona fide agriculture business, we are making a good-faith attempt to grow trees,' they get the benefit of the doubt," Schultz said.
Sybil Barco, senior agricultural specialist for Schultz's office, said the trees must also be planted by Jan. 1 to qualify for the tax break that year. Citrus Hills squeaked in under the deadline, sowing about 108,500 seedlings between Nov. 29 and Dec. 27.
Before making a recommendation about the tax break for Citrus Hills, Barco said she will personally measure the planted areas and study the proposal in the developer's Forest Management Plan.
"I look at every one of (the requests) skeptically," Barco said. "The thing about agricultural classifications is that each one is unique, so you have to do it on a case-by-case basis."
In eight to 12 years, the Forest Management Plan says, the weaker trees should be removed to free more space and soil nutrients for the healthier trees. Five to 10 years after that first "thinning," the remaining trees should be ready for harvest, the plan states.
Although those are the guidelines, nothing requires the developer to grow the trees until they reach a marketable value.
Tamposi said he does not know exactly when these properties will be cleared for development, or what would happen if the trees had not matured by that time.
"We'll cross that bridge if we get to it," he said.
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