Several large hotel companies have lost battles to have undeveloped tracts on which they someday plan to build hotels deemed agricultural land, which would save them thousands in property taxes. In at least one case, the loss of the agricultural exemption will cost the owner more than $400,000.
Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan has waged a campaign against the exemptions for more than a year and finally appears to have hit pay dirt.
As a result, Hilton will see its vacant International Drive property tax jump by a factor of 10. Had Universal not sold its parcels near and on I-Drive last December, its tax bill would have climbed from $390,000 to nearly $1.9 million.
"It could really put a stop to development," hotelier Harris Rosen says. "You buy some property and bank it, waiting for the right time. That right time may never come, but who's to say? This has been how it's gone on forever. Now you have the property appraiser getting into a subjective area. He says you should value the land based on your intent."
Donegan counters that "once you pay 26 times the value of agricultural land, you're not going to do agricultural there. That's ludicrous."
In determining whether land is used for agricultural purposes, the property appraiser is required to consider a number of factors, primary among them is whether there has been "an effort to care sufficiently and adequately for the land as it pertains to the agricultural endeavor."
The owners of the Hyatt and Hilton hotels near the Orange County Convention Center lost their bids for exemptions when the special master of Orange County's Value Adjustment Board, Alison Yurko, ruled that "the agricultural use is temporary, transient, capable of immediately reinventing itself as a hotel as the market warrants."
Rosen's RH Resorts lost its exemption when an appeals judge ruled the pine trees the company planted did not qualify for the agricultural exemption. Rosen's tax bill soared from $30,000 to $487,000.
At issue is more than the $3.5 million the county stands to get in tax money. But from the landowners' standpoint, it's a whole lot more.
"This is too important a battle to give up on," Rosen says. "We'll take it as far as we need to prevail."
Properties where the agricultural exemption has been challenged:OwnerLocationAcresValue
(millions)Non-ag TaxesRH Resorts9480 Universal Blvd.230$25.8$486,776 Sierra Florida Prop.Several on/near
I-Drive45$16.0$310,503Hilton OCCC Hotel LLCNear I-Drive24$19.2$277,177Hyatt HotelN.A.N.A.N.A.$1 million
IN THE NEWS
Daytona Beach -- Daytona Beach Community College is eyeing the property Halifax Medical Center is vacating near the college. The 37-acre parcel could fetch $60 million or more, leaving DBCC leaders scrambling to raise money during the five to 10 years it will take the hospital to relocate.
The 746-room Adam's Mark Hotel is on the verge of being sold, according to reports in the St. Louis Business Journal. The hotel's owner, HBE Corp., has been trying to sell more than a dozen of its Adam's Mark hotels for several months.
HOME SWEET INVESTMENT
The median price of existing homes in Orlando rose 70% in the nine years ended 2003. For comparison, the national median sales price was $113,100 in 1995 and $172,000 in 2003, a 52% increase.YearMedian Sales Price
(existing homes1995$89,3611996$95,0861997$96,3701998$100,7001999$103,3972000$105,6122001$124,9802002$136,0002003$151,200Source: Orlando Regional Realtor AssociationGroveland -- The city now agrees with the Florida Department of Community Affairs about how 2,600 acres just north of Groveland should be developed. The plan calls for allowing increased population density near any public facility, including schools, shopping centers or parks.
Kissimmee -- The Kissimmee Utility Authority plans to offer phone service in Osceola, Orange and Polk counties beginning this month. KUA will partner with Sparks Communications, a division of the New Smyrna Beach Utilities Commission, which already offers residential and small-business service throughout Florida.
Leesburg -- Construction has begun on an interchange between Florida's Turnpike and County Road 470, opening up 3,000 acres owned by the city for the development of a commercial area or business park.
Leesburg officials changed the name of Leesburg Regional Airport to Leesburg Regional Airport at Henry Pringle Field to honor Pringle, who donated the land in 1948.
Orange County -- Regal Cinemas plans to build a 16-screen complex at The Loop, an open-air shopping center planned at the intersection of John Young Parkway and Osceola Parkway.
Vivendi Universal sold a 1,800-acre tract on which it once planned to build a third theme park to Georgia developer Thomas Enterprises Inc. Universal bought the Sand Lake Road tract in 1998 from Lockheed Martin.
Orlando -- The Sheraton Four Points Hotel Orlando has been bought by Atlanta developer David Eichenblatt, who will turn the downtown landmark into a 128-unit condominium named Metropolitan at Lake Eola. Prices will range from the low $100,000s to the low $200,000s.
Bright House Networks has taken over complete operation of Central Florida News 13, a 24-hour local news station broadcast on the Bright House cable network. Since the channel's launch in 1997, Bright House and the Orlando Sentinel had been 50-50 partners in the venture.
Royal Palm Homes and Historic Creations of Orlando have closed on $42 million in financing that will allow construction of The Sanctuary, a 173-unit high-rise condo project near Lake Eola that will include penthouse units that boast 4,800 square feet and will be priced at $1.5 million.
The Homebuilders Association of Metro Orlando canceled its agreement with the Orlando Sentinel to publish its annual Parade of Homes guidebook after the newspaper and WESH-TV teamed up on an investigation into shoddy home-building practices. The Homebuilders Association says it found a more competitive deal.
Florida Hospital and Aetna have resolved a contract dispute that had prevented Aetna's 130,000 central Florida customers from using Florida Hospital facilities.
Convergence Film and Television, a producer of TV commercials, infomercials and sales videos, has merged with Techno-media Solutions, a designer and builder of private video networks. The merged company will be called Entertainment International Inc.
Florida Splendid China, the 10-year-old Chinese-owned theme park known for its miniature replicas of Chinese landmarks, closed.
Osceola County -- County commissioners raised the hotel tax from 5% to 6%, earmarking the additional funds toward the development of a county convention center and adjacent 800-room hotel.
Central Florida YMCA plans to build two child-care centers at Walt Disney World. Enrollment will be open to the public, but preference will be given to Disney employees. The two centers will accommodate about 650 children.
Tavares -- Lake County commissioners withdrew their support for a plan by the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority to extend S.R. 429 as a toll road east of Mount Dora.
The Villages -- Harold Schwartz, founder of The Villages retirement community, died Dec. 22 at his home in The Villages. He was 93. Though not active in running The Villages for several years, Schwartz and his son, Gary Morse, began developing the community in the 1980s. The Villages sprawls across 18,000 acres in Marion, Lake and Sumter counties. Schwartz also dabbled in radio station ownership and helped to discover radio personality Wolfman Jack.
TRAUMA CENTER PLAN
ORLANDO -- A task force looking into funding options to keep Florida Regional Medical Center's Level 1 trauma center open will ask the Legislature to approve a measure providing $2.5 million in state funding annually and $2.5 million in tax and fee increases earmarked for the plan. The proposal calls for Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and Sumter counties to increase fees for drivers' license renewals and traffic citations to fund their share of the cost.