At the Nov. 19 county commission meeting, Mark Nobles, a pilot, told commissioners he has noticed something missing.
Nobles, manager of Carrabelle’s Thompson Field, said he has flown over the county on a regular basis for 32 years. He said that when The St. Joe Company closed its Port St. Joe paper mill in 1996, it gated the access roads to its vast landholdings, denying public access to the private property.
“At the time, I thought it was due to illegal dumping,” said Nobles. “In retrospect, I believe they really didn’t want the public to know what was going on.”
Nobles said the company has harvested large amounts of timber from the property since the gates were put in place and not replanted the land with trees.
“There’s a lot of trees missing that can’t be seen from the road,” said Nobles.
He questioned that since the land is not being replanted, whether it should qualify for the greenbelt agricultural tax exemption under Florida law.
According to a webpage maintained by the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, this law says that properties that are bonafide agricultural operations are taxed according to the “use value” of those operations, rather than the “development value.”
Landowners qualifying for the greenbelt exemption pay a fraction of what other landowners in the same area are assessed. The St. Joe Company now pays about $122 an acre in taxes annually in Franklin County.. according to Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper.
Nobles said he has been unable to determine for how long land continues to qualify for the exemption when a crop is harvested but not replanted.
Nobles suggested to commissioners that an audit be performed to determine if the county is owed back taxes and whether a portion of the land recently purchased by AgReserves, a Utah land holding firm, should be eligible for the exemption. He said land in eight counties, including Franklin, has been stripped of trees.
“Nobody in the property appraiser’s office has had access to the land. You don’t notice this if you don’t fly over it,” Nobles said.
He offered to take any of the commissioners on a flight to view the empty land.
Chair Cheryl Sanders said she shared Nobles’ concerns, and that she had brought up the greenbelt exemption during rezoning hearings when St. Joe proposed to develop much of their land in eastern Franklin County.
Sanders said company representatives maintained they continued to be entitled to the exemption until the land was actually developed. Development plans were later cancelled.
Commissioners voted unanimously to ask Skipper to perform an audit and determine if the status of the land has changed.
In a telephone interview Monday, Skipper said she has thus far determined that as long as St. Joe shows intent to replant the pine trees or to enter into another agricultural venture, they remain entitled to the exemption. She said AgReserves would receive the benefit of the exemption for 2014, but to continue to receive it after that, they would need to apply on their own to the property appraiser’s office and prove their intent to continue the agricultural use of the land.