Environmental, farming groups concerned about tax breaks

A House committee on Wednesday passed a bill that would exempt conservation lands from being taxed as approved by voters last November. But farming and environmental groups remained concerned that the measure would restrict landowners from receiving the tax breaks.

Amendment 4, approved by 68 percent of voters in November, exempts land from property taxes that is subject to a permanent “conservation easement.” That’s an arrangement where a family or corporation could continue to own land but would agree not to develop it in exchange for the tax breaks.

The exemption would take effect Jan. 1, 2010 under the proposed committee bill approved by the House Finance and Tax Council on Wednesday.

House members concerned about the financial impact on counties had sought to limit the conservation lands that could receive exemptions.

The House council bill (PCB FTC 09-02) provides the exemption for tracts of land 40 acres or larger that are used exclusively for conservation purposes. Conservation lands that still are used for some commercial purposes would receive a 50 percent exemption.

The House council approved the measure after adopting an amendment by Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, that would have the state pay 15 counties with populations under 25,000 for county tax revenue lost because of the tax break.

House members said the potential fiscal impact of the amendment isn’t known, yet the constitutional amendment must be implemented because it was approved by voters.

“We tried to put in some safeguards but recognize we could devastate some of these smaller communities with very little population,” said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale and chairwoman of the council.

Representatives of Audubon of Florida and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation said their concerns had not been resolved about the House bill restrictions on applying the tax exemptions.

Conservation landowners still must conduct some commercial activities, such as leasing land for hunting or limited farming or timber harvesting, to pay for maintaining their lands, said Ben Parks, director of state legislative affairs for Farm Bureau.

“We read it … when this constitutional amendment passed it was 100 percent (tax exemption),” Parks said. “It did not say 50 percent.”

“The private landowner, they give up a huge benefit of development (under a conservation easement). That is a huge thing,” Parks said.

Bogdanoff said the committee needed to approve the bill to send it to the full House for a vote. She said she would continue to work with other committee members and groups to improve the bill before the session ends on May 1.

“Amazing things can happen in a week and a half,” she said.