"It's a dumping ground. It's abusive, " said former Pinellas and Citrus counties property appraiser Ronald Schultz, who reviewed several sites for The Herald. "Is it illegal? Probably not."
At another hardscrabble lot in Hialeah owned by Lowell and Betty Dunn: cows decomposing in the dirt, potentially exposing other animals to disease. It's not clear why the cows died. Rancher David Gargera said the carcasses were later burned.
'THAT'S THE LAW'
"As unfair as it may seem, that's the law. That's what we're bound to follow, " said Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Frank Jacobs. "We can't ignore the probability of being unsuccessful in the courts and just do what makes common sense."
At first, the appraiser's office denied tax relief requested last year by Codina's partnership, AMB Codina Beacon Lakes LLC. County inspectors found parts of the site overgrown. The land was purchased for $15.7 million, more than 60 times its agricultural value. Codina fought to rezone it for industrial warehouses.
The appraiser's office backed down after Codina representatives presented a cattleman's lease, tax documents and a photograph showing that some melaleuca trees had been removed. Codina's development approval calls for tree clearing. Still, the appraiser's office described the work as a "sincere attempt made to establish pasture."
On one parcel, Codina persuaded the county last year to more than triple the area classified as pasture, even though the county code prohibits the expansion of agriculture in an industrial zone. During a recent tour, reporters found mounds of downed trees, pools of standing water from a recent storm and very little grass.
"Obviously, this isn't suitable for pasture, " Codina spokesman Tadd Schwartz said as he looked out over the site, apparently thinking he'd left the grazing area. "I would highly doubt that this is getting [the tax break]."
It did. And Codina is seeking the tax break again this year; he was denied at first but has appealed.
Officials with both Codina and Pan American acknowledged that the ranchers who herd cows on their land do not pay rent.
Instead, the developers pay the ranchers. Cattleman Armando Padron filled out tax break applications for both developers and met with county officials on their behalf.
"He did the legwork. He gets a percentage of the savings, " said state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, a limited partner in his father's Pan American development company. "It's a common practice."
If that's true, Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Jacobs said, landowners haven't told him so. He said such arrangements suggest farms designed primarily to profit from tax breaks, not cattle sales.
"It's misleading us if this sort of thing is taking place, " Jacobs said. "If that farmer is sharing in some of the tax savings, then that is clearly not a bona fide agricultural use, and [the tax break] should be denied."
Codina said through a spokesman that the company was continuing an agreement in effect when it bought the property, gradually phasing out a longtime farming business as construction spreads.
Several developers acknowledged that the greenbelt law, which aimed to protect farmland, may not be working as intended. But they argued that vacant land should not be taxed at full value since it doesn't put a strain on public services.
Lopez-Cantera noted that once the land is developed, new homes, offices and warehouses generate tax revenue for local governments. He asked: "Don't you think it's good to offer some sort of incentive to people to develop land that in the future will be among the most profitable in the county?"