TAMPA — State lawmakers created the greenbelt tax classification more than 50 years ago to protect farms and ranches from disappearing as a building boom boosted the value of all land — and the property taxes that go with it.
In many respects it’s a resounding success. Today, even as urban development picks up again in the post-recession economy, Hillsborough County has 5 percent more property designated as greenbelt than it did five years ago.
But more and more, the beneficiaries of this tax break of a whopping 90 percent or more are developers rather than farmers or ranchers.
About 14 percent of greenbelt parcels in Hillsborough are approved for new homes or businesses as “planned development” areas, according to a Tribune analysis of county property records. That’s up from about 12 percent in 2005. Their owners skirt higher taxes by temporarily running cattle or planting pine trees, sometimes in subdivisions where home construction already has begun.
Land designated for any purpose, in fact, is eligible for consideration as greenbelt under broad interpretations handed down by Florida courts.
“The original greenbelt law was a great thing,” said Maggy Hurchalla, an environmental activist and former county commissioner in Martin County on Florida’s east coast. Hurchalla remembers her mother, then a newspaper reporter, writing stories about the Dade County property appraiser practically running dairy farms out of the county with higher and higher property valuations.
But today, the law intended to preserve Florida’s green panoramas and agricultural heritage also contributes to their disappearance. The greenbelt designation, Hurchalla said, encourages developers to buy large tracts for cheap knowing they can pay rock-bottom property taxes indefinitely through token efforts at farming or ranching.
Their savings shifts the overall property tax burden — the money that pays for libraries, schools, parks and law enforcement — to people not eligible for the windfall.
Owners of those planned development parcels alone, about 27,000 acres in Hillsborough County, would have paid $11 million in property taxes in 2013 without the greenbelt designation. With it, according to the Tribune analysis, they paid just one-sixth that amount — $1.95 million.
“It started as a way to keep all the land agricultural,” Hurchalla said. “It turned into a way to facilitate moving the land out of agriculture.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Overall, about 129,000 acres in Hillsborough County carry the greenbelt designation, including cattle ranches, strawberry fields and citrus groves that have been in operation for generations.
Without the designation, owners of this land would have paid $36 million in taxes in 2013. With the greenbelt, they paid $8.7 million.
One example of a developer who benefits from the greenbelt designation is the Belmont subdivision in south Hillsborough County.
Jacksonville-based GreenPointe Holdings bought the 932-acre development site for $13.25 million in 2010. In 2011, GreenPointe renewed the greenbelt status that had been held by previous owners. The lower tax valuation covers all the land except about 100 lots where homes have been built near the entrance on U.S. 301.
The company even gets the greenbelt tax break on 257 platted lots, which are ready for development and more likely to see construction now that the home-buying market is reviving.
GreenPointe pays no taxes on those lots, according to the county property appraiser’s office. If they were all taxed as vacant residential lots instead of agricultural, the company would be paying a total of $26,000 under the current property tax rate.
In an email response to questions, GreenPointe said, “The Hillsborough County property appraiser ensures that properties are being used appropriately. Property that is not used for agricultural purposes is not allowed the classification.”
Asked whether the greenbelt designation is fairly applied to land on the verge of home construction, GreenPointe said, “We do not have a comment on ‘fairness.’ That is a matter for lawmakers and the courts.”
Defenders of the greenbelt designation, including some environmental groups, say without the tax break, much more of the state’s farm and ranch land would have been paved over for development in the last five decades.
“The law yields many benefits, including keeping Florida farmers at work producing the food and fiber we need to survive, as well as protecting Florida’s landscape and recharging valuable water resources,” said Erin Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Charles Lee, longtime lobbyist for Audubon of Florida, says the old days of renting a few “junk cows” to get the tax break are ending. More and more, he said, large landowners are seeing the profitability of wisely planned cattle operations.
And that means preserving rich wildlife habitats, such as the large ranches in the Kissimmee River Valley through Lake Okeechobee, Lee said.
“There has to be an economic basis for people to keep land in agriculture rather than flipping it over for development,” Lee said. “The fact that some developers are finding it in their interest to put cattle on their land and return it to grazing is a sign that the economy was favoring some uses that were more environmentally benign than development.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Still, vagueness in the law and the court rulings that interpret it have made it easier for developers and other big landowners to get a tax break meant to help farmers and ranchers.
The law contains no specific formulas, such as minimum acreage or animals. To get the tax break, a landowner need only show during an annual inspection that the property is being used for a bona fide agricultural operation.
And greenbelt designation can’t be denied because land is zoned for residential or commercial development. Property appraisers cannot take into account that owners are residential or commercial development companies with no history of ranching or farming operations.
“What the courts have basically said is this: Nonconformance with zoning in and of itself is not sufficient to deny greenbelt,” said Will Shepherd, general counsel for the Hillsborough County property appraiser. “It’s in my mind absurd, but it is what the law is.”
Shepherd said most landowners who apply for greenbelt designation do meet the law’s definition of a bona fide agricultural operation. But to make sure, the property appraiser’s office inspects each parcel once a year.
If inspectors find reasons to question the legitimacy of an agricultural operation, they ask the owner for paperwork to prove the operation is profitable. The owners don’t have to provide the documents, but if they refuse they will likely be denied the designation, Shepherd said.
The property owner can appeal denials to the county value adjustment board or in circuit court. In 2013, 7,817 parcels were granted greenbelt status, while 696 were ultimately denied following appeals and settlements.
One example of an appeal won by a property owner is a 2011 case involving land owned by John Greco, one of the founders of the former Kash ‘n Karry supermarket chain.
Greco allowed a former truck driver for the supermarket chain to graze about 15 head of cattle on a 27-acre parcel along Harney Road, just north of Hillsborough Avenue.
While cattle grazed on half the land, the Grecos sold dirt dug from the rest of the tract for $1.8 million.
The excavation actually damaged the potential to use the land for agriculture, forcing grass to be replanted repeatedly to allow further grazing. The truck driver had to supplement the feeding with hay, cutting into the profitability of the operation, according to depositions in the case.
“Once you scrape off the top soil, nothing can grow, including grass for cattle to feed on,” Shepherd said.
Still, the owners won the case and now pay about $138 in property taxes per year on the 27 acres.
John Greco died in November 2011. A lawyer for the family did not return a phone call.
❖ ❖ ❖
Though the test of a legitimate agriculture operation is profitability, the landowner doesn’t have to show that profit the year of his application for greenbelt or even the next year. An example of this was when a real estate company appealed the property appraiser’s denial of a greenbelt application in 2011.
The owners of the company said they would plant pine trees on 10 acres of a 26-acre property — with no payoff for 10 to 20 years down the road.
The office showed the operation would break even at best, Shepherd said.
One reason: It would have to pay $250 a year just to maintain fire lines on the property at U.S. 301 and Bloomingdale Avenue — a total of up to $5,000 — while it expected only about $10,000 from the eventual sale of the mature trees.
In addition, most paper and pulp mills that use pine trees are located in the northern part of the state.
“So would you drive down here for 10 acres?” Shepherd said. “And that’s 10-20 years down the road.”
The company won a partial victory, getting the greenbelt designation on 10 of the 27 acres on the parcel.
Twice in recent years, the greenbelt designation has surfaced in the media.
In 2008, Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson was forced to defend his actions when it was revealed he had obtained the tax break for about 17 acres he owned on Thonotosassa Road near Plant City. Johnson leased the land to a rancher who grazed 11 head of cattle there, reducing Johnson’s tax bill by $10,856.
In the 2012 Republican primary race for property appraiser, challenger Ronda Storms, a former state senator, blasted appraiser Rob Turner as a “bully” for trying to extract the maximum property tax from middle-class taxpayers.
Turner said Storms was just angry because she lost greenbelt designation on a 2-acre nursery she operated with her husband. An inspection showed only a smattering of plants still alive at the nursery.
❖ ❖ ❖
Efforts to change the greenbelt designation get little traction in Tallahassee.
Steve Geller, who served 10 years in the Florida Senate until 2008, made an attempt when he served on the Agriculture and Consumer Services Committee.
“Local governments sometimes lose out and taxpayers lose out,” said Geller, a Broward County Democrat and land-use attorney. “Some people not paying their fair share means other people have to pay more.”
Organizations representing those who benefit from the designation — the Florida Association of Community Developers, a lobbying organization for developers in Tallahassee, and the Tampa Bay Builders Association — declined to comment for this article.
Geller said he was opposed by the agriculture lobby, which was concerned any changes would hurt farmers. Throw in developers, also likely to oppose changes, and greenbelt reform faces an uphill battle, with local governments as the only likely supporters, Geller said.
In Martin County, commissioners decided to make their own changes in 1992.
Hurchalla, the former commissioner there, said developers who obtained a land-use change from agriculture to urban use but continued taking the agricultural tax break the following year would have the land-use change revoked.
Ten years later, a new commission let the policy lapse.
Efforts were made to restore the changes as part of a new comprehensive plan, but it was opposed by the Farm Bureau, Florida Crystals sugar company, King Ranch cattle operation and Becker Groves, Hurchalla said. State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Panama City Republican, filed a bill to make the Martin County measure illegal.
Patronis’ bill failed and the county reached a compromise.
The new language revokes development orders, not land use changes. Development orders are the last step in the development process before building can start. In addition, when developers in Martin County put cows on land in a residential district they are cited for code violations.
The only changes likely in the greenbelt exemption, Hurchalla said, are at the local level.
“From my perspective, the state law is a lost cause,” she said. “That doesn’t mean a local government can’t say, ‘You have residential zoning. Cows are not allowed on residential zoning.’”