Forget bucolic barns and lush pastures.
Here's what passes for farmland in South Florida: rocky, trash-strewn fields, lots crammed with melaleuca trees, even fledgling construction sites.
Under a 1959 state law intended to preserve agriculture, developers reap huge property tax breaks by herding cows or raising crops in the most unlikely settings.
Some pay less in annual property taxes than the average homeowner on parcels slated for multimillion-dollar projects. Other taxpayers make up the difference, or else local governments lose out on money for police, schools and other services.
Most states that offer agricultural tax breaks demand that landowners tend a certain number of acres, turn a profit or promise not to build. Many collect back taxes once development begins.
Not Florida. Here, a loophole-laden "greenbelt" law allows developers to win farm subsidies even as they turn dirt on subdivisions and strip malls:
- 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.
- Developer Pan American purchased a nearby lot to build warehouses. Melaleuca and Australian pine cover much of the 135 acres, and the industrial zoning prohibits farming. Still, the developer won the tax break after paying a rancher to graze some cows there. 2004 property tax savings: $183,207.
- 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.
"It presents the spectacle of a large, well-conceived and executed real estate development operation shyly presenting itself in country drag as a li'l ol' cattle-grazing operation, " wrote the Broward County appraiser's office, which denied the tax break. A hearing officer overturned the decision, and the appraiser's office did not file a court appeal.
The rancher reported 16 cows last year. 2004 property tax savings: $140,168.
It's easy to see why developers seek the tax breaks while planning construction and awaiting permits. Pastures are assessed at $200 an acre in Broward, $1,050 an acre in Miami-Dade - a fraction of their worth in a booming real estate market where taxable values can top $150,000 an acre.
Developers say they are legally benefiting from the greenbelt law while providing land to the area's remaining ranchers and growers. When Codina and Bell bought their land, ranchers were already grazing cows on it.
"Why would it make any sense to kick them out?" asked Codina executive Rafael Rodon. "It makes no business sense for them, and it makes no business sense for us."
But farmland advocates say it makes no sense to give up tax revenue to developers as they prepare to pave over farmland that the greenbelt law was meant to save.
"The effect of the program in some of these cases of abuse is that the agricultural tax is, in effect, subsidizing development, " said Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, a national conservation group. "That's the worst possible scenario because the intent was to preserve agriculture."