Florida's 1959 "greenbelt" law was among the nation's first to give property tax breaks to farmers.As the post-World War II building frenzy drove up property values - and tax bills - lawmakers sought to help growers and ranchers stay in business.
But half a century later, the state's pioneering law is one of the weakest in the country, largelyunsuccessful in preserving farmland and easily exploited by developers.
"They just hand out the tax break to whoever asks, and they don't look at who they're giving it to, " said national preservation expert Deborah Bowers. "They're losing millions and millions of dollars, and the farmland. It's mind-boggling."Florida gave up as much as $745 million in tax revenue last year on agricultural tax breaks, Broward and Miami-Dade counties about $60million between them. Yet a state that depends on agriculture as its second-largest industry has lost roughly eight million acres of farmland since 1954, a drop of more than 40 percent.
Most of the biggest financial beneficiaries of farm subsidies in South Florida are developers and speculators, a Herald investigation found. Some corporate landowners claim lots filled with rocks, melaleuca trees or dirt piles as pasture, cutting property tax bills on those parcels by as much as 99 percent.
Most states impose safeguards designed to prevent abuse of agricultural tax breaks and ensure lasting benefits from the public's investment. In exchange for the subsidies, other states:
- Demand that landowners pay back taxes once development begins. Pennsylvania collects seven years' worth of tax savings plus interest. Massachusetts collects five years of back taxes, while New Jersey demands three years' worth. Wisconsin imposes a penalty based on the previous year's tax savings.
In Florida, landowners who pave over farmland don't have to pay back a dime. Back-tax proposals have been quashed by developers, one of the most powerful special interests in state government, and the farm lobby, which fears that any tweaking of the greenbelt law could undermine it altogether.
- Require that farms be a certain size and generate a minimum income. In New York, farms must be at least seven acres and gross an average of $10,000 a year. South Carolina calls for 10 acres of cropland or at least $1,000 in annual revenue for three of the past five years. Maine requires five acres and $2,000in annual revenue in recent years.
In Florida, even money-losing farms on half-acre lots are eligible for tax relief, whatever their business practices.The Herald found skinny cows eating garbage atone scruffy lot in northwest Miami-Dade; at a Hialeah site, cow carcasses were decomposing in the dirt.
- Scrutinize corporations that seek the tax breaks. To be eligible in Minnesota, corporate landowners must prove that at least 80 percent of their revenue comes from agriculture.
In Florida, non-agricultural corporations can simply lease land to farmers. Subsidies goto national homebuilder Lennar Homes, television magnate and billionaire Edmund Ansin and warehouse developer Armando Codina.
- Make landowners promise not to build for a certain number of years. California's law, considered a model, requires landowners to sign10-year commitments; even more generous tax relief is awarded to those who make20-year commitments. Violators must pay up to 25 percent of the land's market value - $250,000 on a lot worth $1million. Maryland collects a tax when agricultural land is sold, waived only if the new owner promises to keep farming for the next five years.