September 16, 2014

Making Value Judgements on Agricultural Land

Property appraisers examine agricultural exemptions.

Cynthia Barnett | 7/1/2010

Jimmy Alvarez
“It shouldn’t be used for someone to hide behind when they are really in the process of developing that land.”

— Jimmy Alvarez
Bradford County’s property appraiser
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Until this year’s legislative session, Florida’s greenbelt law had largely stayed out of the headlines. The law, enacted in 1959, seeks to minimize the pressure that farmers
face to sell their land for development.

According to the law, if agricultural land sells for more than three times its assessed value, property appraisers must presume it is no longer being used for agriculture — and tax it at commercial rates — unless the new owner proves otherwise.

The path leading to this year’s legislative controversy began in 2003, when Jacksonville-based Rayonier began to transfer some of its land in Bradford County to its development subsidiary, TerraPointe. Rayonier, a timber, manufacturing and real estate company, is the county’s largest landowner, holding 58,500 acres, or 30% of the county’s land.

TerraPointe proceeded to apply for new agricultural exemptions. But beginning in 2005, Jimmy Alvarez, Bradford County’s property appraiser for more than 30 years, denied the exemptions. When Alvarez’s staffers researched the TerraPointe parcels that year, they found much of the land had been cut, some had been subdivided, and all was for sale. In fact, 58% of the transferred land at that point had already been sold.

The loss of the ag exemption resulted in a bigger tax bill for Rayonier. In 2008 alone, Rayonier claimed 2,059 TerraPointe acres in Bradford County as agricultural. Under the agricultural exemption, the tax bill would have been $6,907. But since Alvarez deemed the acreage non-agricultural, the bill was $100,261.

After the county’s value adjustment board upheld Alvarez’s determination, the company sued. Eighth Judicial Circuit Judge Mark W. Moseley ruled in favor of Alvarez in 2008, and an appeals court upheld Moseley’s ruling.

Tammy Stiles
Tammy Stiles
Alvarez’s victories didn’t sit well with big landowners and members of the Legislature. Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, a farmer-developer who is CEO of land management company Alico, championed House Bill 981, which amends the law such that putting agricultural land up for sale for development doesn’t constitute a “primary use” as development. The bill, passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist, also makes the amendment retroactive to pending court cases. Rayonier has two cases against Alvarez for his 2008 and 2009 valuations.

Rayonier has filed similar lawsuits against the property appraiser in Nassau County, where the company owns nearly a quarter of the county — 100,000 acres in timberland and 25,558 that it has transferred to TerraPointe. With an agricultural classification, the TerraPointe properties in Nassau would be assessed at a little more than $5 million for 2010, says Property Appraiser Tammy Stiles. Without it, the assessment grows to $90 million. The tax difference is about $1.3 million.

Rayonier spokeswoman Robin Keegan says the timber company and other large landowners are asking only that they can keep their exemptions as long as there is some agricultural practice under way on the land — in its case, trees. Alvarez says the greenbelt law has done just that for 40 years. “But it shouldn’t be used for someone to hide behind when they are really in the process of developing that land.”

House Bill 981 may not be dead. If its backers can’t override Crist’s veto, they’re expected to revive the bill at the next legislative session.

Tags: Northeast, Agriculture

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