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Proposal Would Allow Farmers To Reap Cash For Land


By MIKE SALINERO [email protected]
Published: Mar 30, 2005



TAMPA - Three years ago, Chuck Watson wouldn't have dreamed he could get $25,000 an acre for his orange groves in east Polk County.

``We're getting three and four times the money per acre from these developers than what the grove is worth if you sold it for a grove,'' Watson said of the land-buying fever that is changing dirt farms into gilded real estate.

Watson said the spiraling land values are a salvation for Florida farmers, who are increasingly squeezed by low commodity prices and high production costs. Now the agriculture lobby wants to remove, through legislation, most of the legal barriers that keep farmers from cashing in on their land.

That effort is being resisted by growth management groups and local governments. They are calling the Agriculture and Economic Development Act (SB 716 and HBCS 561) ``the worst growth management legislation ever.''

The act would make it harder for local governments to stop development on agricultural land if 75 percent of adjacent acreage is developed. The bill would apply to tracts as large as 2,560 acres. In cases of agricultural pests, disease or natural disaster, several landowners can join together to form an eligible area for development of 5,120 acres.

The state House of Representatives passed the bill unanimously Tuesday. It has one committee stop before consideration by the full Senate.

``This is going to pave over our farmland for sure,'' said Denise Layne, of the Hillsborough County-based Coalition for Responsible Growth. ``This will speed up development.''

Agriculture groups say critics are overstating the bill's effect. They say the bill merely would allow farmers to enjoy the benefit of rising land prices like adjoining landowners.

``The bottom line is we're trying to protect the land values of farmers,'' said Ben Parks, lobbyist for the Florida Farm Bureau.

Parks said the bill could help farmers stay on the land. Higher property values help a farmer's credit when he or she is borrowing for seed, fertilizer and equipment, he said. If the farmer decides not to continue growing crops, the bill would let him or her get the highest value for the land.

``It's interesting that local governments are all of a sudden worried about sprawl, when you have ag operations 75 percent surrounded by development,'' said Doug Mann, government consultant for the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association. ``If you're 75 percent surrounded, you've got sprawl. It's already there.''

Critics say the bill creates special development rights that no other land designation enjoys. It would create a land designation called ``agricultural enclave,'' when 75 percent of the farmland is bordered by development. The bill would deny local governments a reason to reject rezoning the agriculture land, even if the changes would conflict with the county's long-range growth plan.

Under Florida's growth management law, counties control sprawl through their comprehensive growth plans. The plans outline where and when development will happen so services can be provided in an orderly manner.

Under the bills' provisions, farmers who have declared their land an agricultural enclave can apply for changes to a county's growth plan. If the county doesn't act in 180 days, the request automatically is approved.

Agriculture groups say eligible farmers still will have to go through all the normal reviews under the growth plan amendment process.

Critics, on the other hand, say these changes impede a county government's ability to control growth.

``Not that we've done that good a job to begin with, but ... in this bill it's being further undermined,'' said Charles Pattison, director of 1000 Friends of Florida, a growth management group.
 

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The idea that these farmers need help in protecting their land values is absolutely stupid. With Florida's urban sprawl not slowing down anytime soon, I think you all will agree with me in saying that they have nothing to fear.
 
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