CAN BE DENIED
Bruns, the Department of Revenue spokesman, said appraisers can deny tax breaks if they have reason to believe development will begin shortly.
"If the intent of the owner or lessee on January 1 is not to be agricultural that year, that would take it out of the classification, " he said.
Jacobs said he had to grant the tax break as long as there was farming on Jan. 1. He added that inspectors found crops when they visited in December 2003, although they did not return again in 2004, according to inspection notes.
When the appraiser's office does withhold farm subsidies, taxpayers may file appeals. The office often reverses its decision voluntarily, saving everyone the trouble of a hearing before a county-appointed magistrate.
"We try to minimize the amount of friction. That's what we are supposed to do as public officials, " said Davies, the appraisal supervisor in Miami-Dade. "Professionalism, in my opinion, takes precedence over the money issue."
When settlements aren't reached, Davies and other county officials say they vigorously defend their decisions at hearings. But a review of public records and taped hearings found that they left out key facts and testimony in some cases.
Magistrate Isabel Bombino awarded $60,000 in tax breaks on heavily wooded lots owned by Lancaster Homes in 2002, noting that the county inspectors who said the land was "overgrown" were not available to testify.
The next year, instead of sending inspectors to make their case, the county signed off on the tax breaks.
During an appeal by developers Lowell and Betty Dunn, agricultural supervisor Laura Guzman didn't mention complaints that 200 dirt piles near the property's edge were blowing "sandstorms" into nearby backyards, making children sick and ruining outdoor furniture.
The town of Miami Lakes sued, and the Dunns agreed to reduce the piles to 10 feet. Their attorney, Julie Zahniser, said the dirt mounds have been there for years and don't interfere with cattle grazing.
Nor did Guzman mention at the hearing that the Dunns' own court filing said "preparatory" development work had begun at the site. Or that the town had rezoned the land and approved site plans for residential and commercial development.
The county has appealed Magistrate Harvey Goldstein's decision to classify the dirt mounds as pasture. The Dunns paid $2,700 in taxes last year on the 156-acre lot.
If taxpayers knew how much money was lost to developers, said Donegan, the Orange County property appraiser, they would want appraisers to push harder, even if it meant risking a loss now and then.
"Unless somebody starts in on them, it will just go on forever and ever, " he said. "When they don't pay, you know who does? The homeowners and the small-business owners who don't have the big lawyers to help them do this."