The greenbelt law dates back to 1959, a time when Florida's swamps and orange groves were first giving way to suburban strip malls and sub divisions. As former state senator Steven Geller said to me, it was a troubled time for farmers. Land was assessed and taxed based on its most profitable potential use, and for the most part, that meant real estate. Because citrus trees didn't offer the same returns as new condos, many farmers were forced to either sell their property or risk being priced out. The greenbelt law offered a solution by dropping rates for agricultural land.Ohio's law is pretty loose, but I don't know if it is this loose.
Other states have passed similar laws that work as intended. The problem with Florida's, Geller said, is its vague wording. To qualify for the exemption, property owners are required to use their land for "bona fide" agricultural purposes. But what does "bona fide" mean? That's far from clear. Aided by lax court rulings, developers have seized on that ambiguity by leasing out their land to cattle ranchers while they prepare to build, often shaving hundreds of thousands of dollars off their tax bills.
What does it take to qualify for the exemption? Often just a few underfed animals roaming around a mud patch. Property owners must submit a form to the government and provide evidence that they are engaged in "good-faith commercial agriculture." They don't have to generate an income from their operations. Many have been allowed to claim the exemption even after rezoning their land for non-agricultural purposes. Others have received the break after starting construction. In its unsparing, 2005 investigation of the greenbelt law, reporters from the Miami Herald visited so-called farmland where they encountered cows eating trash in grassless fields and dead animals decomposing in the dirt. Here are couple of their descriptions:
Other beneficiaries of the law have included Walt Disney World ($1.5 million in savings), as well as U.S. Senator Bill Nelson ($43,000 in savings), who keeps about six cows on 55 acres of land near the Indian River, courtesy of a cattle ranching operation that leases the property for free. Like Nelson, some developers simply offer their land to ranchers for no charge. Others, as the Herald noted, actually pay the ranchers -- hence the loophole's nickname, "rent-a-cow."
- Developer Armando Codina and his partners pay ranchers to keep cows on their land in northwest Miami-Dade County so they can get agricultural tax breaks while building industrial warehouses. One so-called pasture is a soggy wasteland littered with downed trees. Months before Codina requested farmland tax breaks, he asked Miami-Dade to declare the entire site an environmentally contaminated "brownfield." 2004 property tax savings: $250,273.
- Cows wander amid concrete pads and utility boxes on 49 acres in Southwest Ranches, where developer Richard Bell plans to build homes priced at $1.5 million and up.... The rancher reported 16 cows last year. 2004 property tax savings: $140,168.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Florida's Rent-a-cow Scam
Florida's CAUV law lets just about anybody claim to be a farmer: