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Untouched and untaxed
SOURCE: St. Petersburg Times
STEVE BOUSQUET
January 31 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Another big property tax break is headed to Florida voters, but this one would benefit only owners of vast swaths of vacant land. The proposal: Keep your land green forever, and you'll never pay property taxes on it again. If voters agree, thousands of acres worth billions of dollars could be saved from development. But the property also would vanish from tax rolls of counties already coping with reduced revenues after last year's tax rate rollback and Tuesday's voter-approved tax cut. The ballot measure is the most significant yet proposed by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a once-every-20-year group that has the power to place state constitutional amendments on the ballot. Voters will consider the measure on November's ballot. Pushing the measure was commission member Brian Yablonski, a former policy adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush who is now a vice president for St. Joe Co., the state's largest private landowner. While St. Joe may one day benefit from the tax break, Yablonski and others said he pushed the plan at the behest of environmentalists and the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, on which Yablonski serves. Supporters say they worry about the dwindling lands available for conservation, hunting and fishing. "This may be the biggest movement to preserve land that we've seen since Florida Forever," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida, referring to Florida's state land acquisition program. "It removes the single biggest impediment to landowners converting their land from active agriculture to wildlife management." The commission unanimously endorsed the conservation idea Wednesday, giving the high-powered panel a chance to cut taxes and promote open space at the same time. Exactly how the tax break would be administered would be up to the Legislature. Details such as a minimum parcel size have not been addressed. But to qualify for the tax break, landowners would be required to sign a conservation easement on their land to restrict its use forever, or "in perpetuity." Such easements wouldn't necessarily require public access, but by limiting the land's use, they reduce its market value substantially. "We want to create incentives to put private lands into conservation," said Yablonski, who accepted a round of handshakes after his proposal cruised through on an 18-0 vote. He said he has not mentioned the issue to his employer. "Gosh, I haven't engaged them on this." Draper, the Audubon lobbyist, said Yablonski was a logical person to pursue the issue. "A couple of us worked him over on this issue, and he seems to be a true believer," he said. The Trust for Public Lands, Nature Conservancy and Florida Wildlife Federation all testified in support of the proposal. Environmentalists say the most obvious candidates for the new conservation tax breaks are Florida Forever's A-list or high-priority acquisition sites. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the fifth largest site on that list is 172,000 acres of St. Joe timberland stretching across 11 counties in the state's northern tier. A company official said he had not discussed the proposal with Yablonski and was unaware of its potential impact on the firm. "St. Joe supports these very important environmental objectives," spokesman Jerry Ray said, "but we have not yet evaluated how they may affect any specific parcel." Despite the potential loss of tax revenue, counties are neutral. "The intent is good," said John Wayne Smith of the Florida Association of Counties. "People would like to find a way that there isn't pressure for everything in Florida to be paved over in 10 years." Giving tax breaks for conservation is not a new idea. A similar proposal won support from the 1998 Constitutional Revision Commission, but died because it was attached to a more controversial tax issue. Florida already provides so-called greenbelt tax breaks to landowners, but they must engage in agricultural production to qualify. "If they let it go fallow, they lose the tax incentive," Audubon's Draper said. "That's what's motivating this." Georgia already has a state law that awards tax incentives for private conservation, and federal law does, too. At least 60 percent of voters would have to approve the plan in the November election in order for it to go into effect.

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