"All of the political cards are stacked in favor of developers getting the agricultural classification, " he said.
In Broward, newly elected Property Appraiser Lori Parrish has pledged to be a reformer. She appointed Jason Curtis, a young, energetic farmer, to review all properties receiving agricultural tax breaks.
Some haven't been thoroughly inspected for years, Curtis said. But he said the law makes it difficult to withhold tax breaks from landowners who have received them before.
"I'm not going to waste time fighting something I'm going to lose anyway, " Curtis said. "The law has got my hands tied."
Parrish declined to continue her predecessor's fight against a Southwest Ranches developer who allowed cows to stay on his land after installing building pads, utilities and roads. The cattle saved him $140,168 in taxes last year.
A county-appointed magistrate overruled the former appraiser's decision to deny the tax break. A board of county officials that reviews tax disputes decided not to intervene. Parrish said she did not go to court because she was reluctant to second-guess the board on a dispute that occurred before her election.
The developer, Richard Bell, and his company, Landmark Custom Ranches, each gave the maximum $500 contribution to Parrish's 2004 campaign. She said the donations did not influence her decision.
Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan recently won an appeals court judgment against a resort chain that presented 230 acres as a tree farm even as preliminary work on a golf course had begun. Donegan also is appealing a court decision that gave theme-park developer Universal Studios more than $1 million in agricultural tax breaks on land nearby.
Other appraisers around Florida describe Donegan's victory over RH Resorts as a turning point that could inspire tougher enforcement of the state's greenbelt law.
"It will be the strongest thing we've had to support denials of agriculture in a long time, " said Alachua County Appraiser Ed Crapo, former president of the state appraisers association. "It's going to be a real good precedent for the rest of us - put some teeth back into the law."
Said Donegan: "While we are letting these big hitters get away with it, somebody else pays. I don't know how they sleep at night. I really don't."
Some of South Florida's biggest builders are reaping huge agricultural tax breaks in Homestead, a winter vegetable capital fast becoming a haven for families seeking affordable homes. A partnership among Lennar, Caribe, Lowell and Prime Homes, for example, saved $393,825 last year on former potato and cornfields slated for a sprawling residential development.
The appraiser's office granted the tax break even though an aerial photograph on its own website showed that crops had been cleared by the time the application arrived - three months late. The builders skipped the questions about the farmer's income and the size and location of the property.
The law tells appraisers to be particularly skeptical of land bought for more than three times its agricultural value or rezoned for nonfarming uses. The Homestead builders reported paying $17.5 million for the 82 acres, dozens of times its value as cropland. And the property was rezoned by the previous owner for scores of homes.
Within months of applying for agricultural subsidies - and well before the end of the tax year - the builders pulled permits and broke ground.