Port LaBelle Marina Loses ''Farm'' Classification
MOORE HAVEN, FL. -- One of Glades county's large property owners apparently tried fool the county tax appraiser this year to keep a parcel of land classified as agricultural use even though it has not been used for agriculture at all this year and half of last year.
The Port LaBelle Marina, owned by multi-millionaire Walter R. Ferguson, tried this year to keep acreage surrounding the Port LaBelle Marina classified for an agricultural classification for pasturing cattle, even though the property has no cattle and did not have a fence enclosing the property for much of last year.
Port LaBelle Marina, owned by Walter R. Ferguson, has scores of acres of vacant land surrounding it's commercial marina business on the south side of the river in Glades county. In the Spring of 2009, the company put up a fence around the property east of the marina, bordered by the Caloosahatchee River on the north and Oxbox Drive on the south. A lease was drawn up with a cattle owner, and Ferguson submitted an application to Larry Luckey, Glades County Property appraiser to lower the land's property assessments by using the acreage as a cattle pasture.
Cattle were placed on the land and Luckey approved the agricultural classification last year, lowering the property taxes by tens of thousands of dollars in 2009. From records it appears the marina property value was lowered from $2,310,321 to $1,431,183.
But shortly thereafter, it seems the Ferguson made a mistake when he installed the fence, as it was determined they had placed barbed wire fences on property owned by the Army Corps of Engineers along the length of the river. The fence was installed about 50 feet inside the Corps property. The Corps told them to remove the fence. The cattle and the fence were removed last summer. Cattle were only on the land for a few months in 2009.
Workers put up a fence last week apparently in the correct location along the river, but no cattle were observed on the land as of May 2.
By March 1, 2010 the company was required to tell Larry Luckey's Glades County Property Appraisers office that they no longer qualified for an agricultural classification, since there were no cattle and no fence to hold them in as of January 1, 2010.
According to Luckey, Ferguson was sent a 'automatic agriculture classification renewal' form, which Ferguson should have returned, checking a box that he no longer qualified, as the lands were not being used primarily for agriculture. Luckey says Ferguson did not return the form.
Around April 6th, Luckey inspected the property and determined Ferguson did not have the right to the ag classification since there were no cattle and a fence was missing on the entire north side of the property. Luckey said he therefore cancelled the Port LaBelle Marina's agricultural classification for 2010.
State laws require county tax appraisers each January to send a DR499 renewal application form each year to property owners holding an agricultural classification, to verify their land is still used for an agricultural business. The form sent may also take the form of a DR499C, a renewal and certification application, or an automatic renewal receipt, a DR499AR. The DR499AR, automatic renewal instructs the owner to check a box if the land is no longer eligible for an agricultural exemption.
If land is being used for a legitimate farming business use, Florida allows a substantial reduction in assessed property value, resulting in property taxes that might be reduced from ten of thousands of dollars yearly to a few hundred dollars. Florida wants to encourage farming, realizing that lowering property taxes on farm lands will help farmers keep farm lands productive.
Temptation For Tax Cheating
But, the incentive for greatly lowered property taxes can be a temptation for cheating as it would appear in this Glades County case. From Glades property assessment records, it appears about $1,000,000 in property valuation was deducted in 2009 by Glades Property Appraiser Larry Luckey for the Marina property. And Port LaBelle Marina owner, Ferguson apparently thought he could continue this year even without bona fide ag use.
The appraisal process for renewal of agricultural classifications may be flawed, according to what one local tax appraiser office employee told us. Renewals for farm land classifications may take up to several years to be actually physically re-inspected after an original application is approved. So a land owner, like Ferguson might be able to save thousands of tax dollars for several years without actually farming the land beyond the first few months of the first year.
Ferguson can appeal to the county's Value Adjustment Board in August if he feels the Port LaBelle Marina is entitled to the agricultural classification.