The Miami Herald

Owners armed with lawyers get upper hand

Harvey Goldstein peered at the developer’s photograph. There was no sign of cows, but he thought maybe, just maybe, he saw a horse.

As one of 28 magistrates appointed by Miami-Dade County to hear taxpayer appeals, it was his job to determine whether the land in the picture was genuine pasture. The decision was worth $67,021 in agricultural tax breaks for developers Lowell and Betty Dunn.

Never mind that a county inspector had found no cattle — just overgrown brush, debris and a construction crane. Or that the farmer who said he tended cows there admitted under oath that there was little or no grass.

Never mind that a lone horse is hardly evidence of a commercial cattle-raising operation.

After prodding by the Dunns’ attorney and testimony from the farmer, Goldstein overturned the county’s decision to deny the subsidy. ‘‘As long as a horse is being grazed there,’’ he said, ‘‘I guess some of the property is being used for agriculture.’’

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake during agricultural tax appeals, quietly held in nondescript government offices. Property owners often get their way, and when they do, it means higher tax bills or less government service for everyone else.

HIGH PERCENTAGE

Of the 1,174 taxpayer appeals heard in Miami-Dade and Broward during 2000 to 2003 — some settled, some decided at hearings — about 75 percent resulted in additional tax savings for the landowners. Many were developers whose lawyers knew how to exploit a tax program meant to benefit farmers.

‘‘Developers have the financial means to put up a good fight,’’ said Stacy Sheridan, a national farmland preservation consultant. ‘‘They hold a pretty big stick.’’

State law requires proof of a ‘‘bona fide’’ farming business to qualify for an agricultural tax break. But in the end, big-money decisions can turn, in part, on one person squinting at a photograph, trying to spot animals that may or may not exist.

At a February hearing about one month before the Dunn appeal, Broward County’s new agricultural appraisal chief, Jason Curtis, held a magnifying glass to an aerial photograph of a Southwest Ranches property. He challenged Stone Creek developer Alberto Fernandez to show him the tracks from cattle going to get food and water. The cows were nowhere to be seen.

‘‘Isn’t it possible,’’ demanded the developer’s attorney, John McManus, ‘‘that they are hiding behind the trees?’’

Magistrate Davia Mazur wasn’t convinced, but cows visible on another section of the property helped win Stone Creek $30,684 in tax breaks.

LAWYER ON HAND

The developer was the only property owner who came armed with a lawyer that day. A goat breeder from Weston arrived with a book called The Purpose- Driven Life. A Romanian immigrant brought plastic tubs of honey from her Daviebee farm.

Curtis had a lawyer, too, sent by the Broward appraiser’s office to help defend his decisions.

But there was no legal expert to help Miami-Dade agricultural appraisal supervisor Laura Guzman make her case at the Dunn hearing and others.

At one point, Guzman turned to the Dunns’ attorney, Julie Zahniser, and said, ‘‘If, in the future, you’re going to keep on stating law, at least tell me which law you’re going to state so I can [research it] and figure out what you are talking about.’’

Magistrate Goldstein, an attorney, said he, too, was unfamiliar with the relevant case law. He recently told The Herald that he was uncomfortable with decisions he made during agricultural hearings and wished the county had been represented by a lawyer.

‘‘Sometimes the appraiser’s office is taken by surprise,’’ Assistant County Attorney Mindy Thornton said when asked why she did not attend. ‘‘If there’s going to be legal issues addressed, we’ll try to get down there.’’




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