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Amid growth, tax breaks mix with tradition

About 100 cows owned by the family of former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham roam on grassy fields in Miami Lakes, grazing and mooing and evoking the town’s dairy farm past.

The rural vista comes at a price. Local governments gave up $823,000 in taxes last year because the Grahams keep some cattle locally instead of at their 1,000-acre dairy near Lake Okeechobee.

The dairy left Miami Lakes 25 years ago. The Graham Companies continue to graze heifers in town and in unincorporated areas — about 100 miles from the dairy’s main herd — for the tax break.

‘‘We would be silly not to,’’ said Senior Executive Vice President Stu Wyllie. ‘‘We’ve done it that way for a long time, and it’s worked for us.’’

No one is complaining. This is a town that loves cows, celebrating them in the official seal, in roads named Cow Pen and New Barn, and in a cultural arts program called, simply, ‘‘We Love Cows.’’ Several artists have been commissioned to paint life-size fiberglass cows for public display.

‘‘Cows are really our trademark,’’ said Miami Lakes Mayor Wayne Slaton.

But over the next decade, The Graham Companies intend to build offices and warehouses on remaining cow pastures scatteredthroughout the town. Which raises an important public policy question: Is having the cows around until development pushes them out worth the lost tax revenue, year after year after year?

Probably, Slaton said.

‘‘Most people have an affinity for the cows and would hate to see them go,’’ Slaton said. ‘‘They’re probably not aware that there’s a substantial tax break.’’

While preserving pastures,the subsidies allowed The Graham Companies to build prudently, Wyllie said Miami Lakes boutiques and restaurants are clustered downtown and roads wind around parks, lakes and homes.

‘‘We’re weren’t forced to just put anything on the properties because we had to pay a lot of taxes,’’ Wyllie said.

That’s an argument developers commonly make to defend their use of agricultural subsidies, conservation experts said. American Farmland Trust President Ralph Grossi said: ‘‘If the real public purpose of the tax break program is to keep agricultural land in agriculture, clearly this operation isn’t serving that purpose.’’

Miami-Dade and Broward counties were home to dozens of dairies when South Dakota gold miner Ernest ‘‘Cap’’ Graham bought the land in the late 1920s. But property values boomed building homes proved more profitable than milking cows.

The lone holdout, Waldrep Dairy in Cooper City, loaded milk trucks for the last time on Feb. 4. Developer Tousa/Kolter plans 1,900 homes.