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Disneyworld cattle tax breaks

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Coasters, cows and cash in Florida
Theme parks take to farming to lower tax bill

ORLANDO, Florida (AP) --Orlando's theme parks have roller coaster rides, live action characters and, if you see their property tax bills, farms.

To save millions of dollars in property taxes, Walt Disney World has cattle grazing on its property, and SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando are in the pine tree growing business.

But property appraisers in Orange and Osceola counties say the theme parks, and some hotels in Orlando's tourist corridor, are taking advantage of rules meant to help bona fide farmers by giving them cheaper tax rates on farmland. Theme parks and hotels use the rules to pay lower taxes on properties until the land is ready to be developed, officials in both counties said.

With the land classified as agricultural, Orange and Osceola counties will lose more than $4.4 million in annual tax revenue that could have paid for roads and schools, officials said.

"When you take something with that amount of money off the tax roll, somebody else is going to have to pick up the tab," said Bob Day, Osceola County's property appraiser.

'We pay our way'
Walt Disney World has claimed 162 acres on three parcels of property in Osceola County as farmland for years because it says it has cattle grazing there. Disney currently saves about $54,000 a year in property taxes by claiming the parcels as agricultural land.

The parcels are next door to Disney's planned community, Celebration, and near one of Orlando's busiest tourist strips, Highway 192, which links Disney World to a corridor of motels, restaurants and a water park. The theme park resort owns more than 30,000 acres in central Florida and only a third of its property is developed.

Cattle rancher Earl Sullivan has had his cattle graze on the land since the 1960s, and the parcels have been used for agricultural purposes since the company purchased them in 1973, Disney spokeswoman Marilyn Waters said. She noted that the resort paid almost $100 million in annual property tax to three jurisdictions.

"We are a big taxpayer and we feel we pay our way and give back to the community," Waters said. "If your land is valid agricultural use, then you are eligible for this."

According to public records, the Osceola property appraiser's office grew suspicious more than a year ago when the agricultural parcels became overgrown and fencing went unrepaired. Representatives from the office visited the parcels several times and found no cattle; it was only when the office scheduled a formal meeting with a Disney representative last August that they found cattle on the land.

The appraiser's office moved to revoke the agricultural classification. Disney officials protested and a special master was hired to arbitrate the dispute; the master ruled in Disney's favor.

As commercial property, the parcels are valued at $4 million and Disney would have to pay $66,000 in taxes on the land. As agricultural land, the parcels are valued at $750,000 and cost Disney only $12,000 in property taxes, Day said.

Expensive property
The property appraiser's office in neighboring Orange County has fought a similar battle with SeaWorld, Universal and several hotels. A special master hired to arbitrate the dispute ruled in favor of the theme parks and hotels late last year. The county is considering fighting the decision in court.

Anheuser Busch, which owns SeaWorld Orlando, saves more than $866,000 annually in property taxes by claiming six parcels for agriculture, the property appraiser's office said.

Busch officials have said they have no intention of selling or developing the parcels, which hold 100,000 pine seedlings. Company officials also have said the parcels are used to create a buffer zone between SeaWorld and other commercial areas and cited a horticulture staff of 100 people as proof of their commitment to agriculture.

Other tourist properties have taken similar steps.

A Hyatt hotel annually saves $874,000, a Hilton hotel saves $432,440 and Universal saves $1.4 million in annual property taxes by classifying land for agriculture, according to the Orange County property appraiser's office.

The property appraiser's office tried to revoke the agriculture classification on 700 acres owned by Universal, but Universal officials argued before the special master that other developers do the same thing. The master determined that the property appraiser's office was acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

"It's a legitimate agricultural use," said Jim Canfield, a spokesman for Universal, which pays $24 million in annual property taxes.

The property appraiser's office is appealing the decision to a county board and plans to take the theme parks and hotels to court if necessary to force them to pay commercial property taxes on the properties.

"I think they have some very expensive property and they don't want to pay their taxes," said Bill Donegan, Orange County's property appraiser.


Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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