Title: The Bluebelt Amendment: Will it Help Protect Recharge Lands?
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/WL00000942/00001
 Material Information
Title: The Bluebelt Amendment: Will it Help Protect Recharge Lands?
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Spatial Coverage: North America -- United States of America -- Florida
Abstract: Florida Defenders of the Environment Bulletin Article The Bluebelt Amendment: Will it Help Protect Recharge Lands? Bulletin 27- September-October 1988
General Note: Box 7, Folder 4 ( Vail Conference 1989 - 1989 ), Item 41
Funding: Digitized by the Legal Technology Institute in the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida.
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Bibliographic ID: WL00000942
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Levin College of Law, University of Florida
Holding Location: Levin College of Law, University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Full Text


By Karla Brandt and Richard H. Schneider

In the November 1988 general election, Florida's voters
will decide whether to amend Section 4 of the state's Con-
stitution to allow assessment of "land producing high water
recharge to Florida's aquifers...solely on the basis of charac-
ter or use." If passed, the amendment--known as the
"bluebelt amendment"-would allow high-recharge lands to
be assessed for ad valorem tax purposes on the basis of use
rather than on fair market value. Similar treatment is already
accorded agricultural land and "land used exclusively for
non-commercial recreational purposes."
This proposal is being put on the ballot by an act of the
1987 state legislature. Similar bills were introduced in 1983,
1984,1985, and 1986, but none was passed. If the referendum
is approved by the voters, the legislature will then have to
write and adopt legislation to implement it. This legislation
s willbe crucial in determining how the amendment will affect
the state. In past years, attempts have been made to prepare
such a law, but--in the words of Senator Tom C. Brown (D-
Daytona Beach)--those attempts "got balled up into all kinds
of circumstances" (Senate Finance and Taxation Committee
hearing on SJR 356,1987). Apparently, no attempt was made
in the 1987 session to formulate implementing legislation.
Voters should have the opportunity to examine the im-
plementing legislation before they are asked to decide on the

On its face, the proposed amendment appears to protect
Florida's supply of usable water by giving tax breaks to
owners of those lands though which surface waters travel to
-underground aquifers, which yield most of the state's water
supply for domestic, agricultural, and industrial consump-
tion.On closer examination, however, the proposalgives rise
to numerous questions that should be, but have not been,
answered before voters decide whether to approve it. These
questions include the referendum's potential effectiveness
in protecting recharge areas (ie., the connection between
preferential assessment and land use), its effects on local
taxes, the way in which assessments will be made, and the
technical difficulties in determining what properties and

Ms. Brandt is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Center
for Wetlands, University ofFlorida. Dr. Schneider is Associate
S Dean of the College of Agriculture, University of Florida. The
research on which this article is basedwas doneforthe Institute
of Government at the University of Florida.

what land uses provide high recharge. Following are brief ex-
plorations of the implications of these issues.
1. Do preferential tax assessments provide effective in-
centives against land use conversions?

The amount of recharge provided by any given piece of
land is determined by soil type, proximity to the aquifer,
topography, and other natural factors. Land use can also in-
fluence recharge. Surface drainage systems, impermeable
surfaces, and soil compaction--all characteristic of urban
land uses-prevent percolation of surface waters to the
aquifer. Therefore, if recharge lands can be kept in or close
to their natural conditions, recharge functions can be
protected. The logic behind this amendment is that lower tax
bills will provide enough incentive for owners of high
recharge lands so that they will avoid land uses that would
compromise the recharge function and thus render them in-
eligible for the preferential assessment.

But does preferential assessment, by itself, deter land-
owners from changing uses? Will a smaller tax bill deter-
mine whether land is sold or not? Experience with
preferential assessments for agricultural lands has shown
that reduced taxes, by themselves, have little, if any, influence
on landowners' decisions to sell.

Land purchase, either of fee simple or of development
rights, is a more effective means of determining land use;
adopting land use regulations is another option. In 1984 the
state Department of Environmental Regulation attempted
to adopt regulations that would protect high-recharge areas,
but apparently the program was scotched for political
reasons. Given the seriousness of Florida's need to protect
its aquifers, abluebelt law is insufficient to achieve this pal,
although it may be more politically feasible than eercasmg
eminent domain or writing strict rules governing land use.
Relying solely on a voluntary program of preferential as-
sessments will not provide long-term protection of high
recharge lands. Some landowners will choose not to apply
for such an assessment, particularly if the program mandates
penalties or payment of back taxes based on fair market
value if the land use is changed so that the recharge function
is impaired. If no such provisions are made, then landowners
can change uses or sell the land for other uses at will. In other

/0. OA

words, the preferential assessment does not guarantee that
important recharge areas will be protected, nor does it as-
p sure that those lands given the preference now will not be al-
tered in the future in such a way as to compromise the
recharge function.

It is the policy of the State of Florida, expressed in the
State Comprehensive Plan, to "identify and protect the func-
tions of water recharge areas and provide incentives for their
conservation" (Ch. 187.201(8)(b)(2), FS.). Regulating the
uses of such areas could prove more effective in the long
term than would voluntary preferential assessments with no
strings attached. To ensure future water supplies, recharge
lands need permanent protection; a preferential assessment
scheme, if patterned after the state's greenbelt law, will
protect recharge only one year at a time. The bluebelt
amendment could serve as a stimulus for further government
action, but it might also lull the public and public servants
into a false sense of security that the amendment has solved
the problem.

2. What are the fiscal ramifications of the proposed

Decreasing the assessed value of some lands in any given
county will result either in lowering the total amount of ad
valorem taxes collected or, if total revenues are to be sus-
tained, in raising taxes-perhaps via increasing millage rates
or by finding new sources of county revenues.Without decid-
ing before enactment how high-recharge lands will be as-
sessed-i.e., choosing the basis for assessing such lands--the
fiscal impacts cannot be predicted. In 1986 the House
Judiciary Committee pointed out that the effects of the
proposed amendment have not been--indeed, cannot be--
calculated based solely on the proposal's language:

The fiscal impact of this resolution on the public sector
cannot be determined at this time. A legislative determina-
tion that recharge lands should be assessed at less than just
valuation could benefit agricultural landowners in Central
and Northern Florida who face losing their agricultural as-
sessments due to the winter freezes of 1983 and 1985. Such
an assessment, however, would likely necessitate an increase
in the current rate of taxation or the use of an alternate form
of taxation to compensate for revenues lost by virtue of the
lower assessment. (House of Representatives Committee on
Judiciary. Staff Analysis, HJR 2. February 6,1986.)

The analysis further pointed out:

The fiscal impact of this resolution on state and local
governments cannot be determined until the legislature
chooses to provide for the assessment of high water recharge
lands at other than just valuation and an assessment
methodology for these lands is approved.
One way for the Legislature to solve this problem would
be for the state to reimburse local governments for the dif-
ference in revenues brought about by the preferential tax as-
sessment. However, those funds would have to come from
somewhere, and general revenues are already overstretched.
During the next ten years, a deficit of nearly $80 billion has
been predicted between state government revenues and

state government needs for maintaining the present level of
services. A shortfall between $10.5 and $12.5 billion has been
projected for the period 1982 to 2000just for transportation,
water, and wastewater facilities in Florida. At the local level,
it will cost $17.9 billion to implement the State Comprehen-
sive Plan; of that, no revenue source has been identified for
$12.4 billion, or 69 percent of the need. Is this the time to cut
further into local or state revenue sources?

3. How will high recharge lands be assessed?

Crucial to the effect of the amendment is the choice of as-
sessment methodology:

An undetermined local or state fiscal impact may result
depending on an approved assessment methodology to be
decidedly the Department of Revenue.The department has
indicated that the only feasible method may be to assess high
recharge lands at a flat rate valuation. (House Committee on
Natural Resources. Bill Analysis HJR 67. December 2,

If a flat-rate approach is taken, how will the rate be deter-
mined? In assessment of land qualifying for the agricultural
assessment, if a buyer pays more than three times the as-
sessed value, the agricultural classification is discontinued
unless "special circumstances" can be proved. However, a
court decided that such "special circumstances" include con-
tinuation of the use of land for agriculture. To deter abuse
of the program by speculators, how can the price paid for
high recharge lands be taken into consideration? Even if
workable assessment standards can be developed, they may
not be applied fairly:
...because property appraisers have broad discretion in
applying the assessment standards, the standards themsel-
ves offer little hope of ensuring that property appraisers as-
sess justly, uniformly, and equally. (Wershow and Edwards,
1981, at page 75.)

4. How will "Florida's aquifers" and "high-recharge
areas" be defined?

Similar bills introduced in 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986
would have included lands producing high recharge only to
the Floridan Aquifer, but the version that was passed in-
cludes "Florida's aquifers," not just the Floridan. The version
that was enacted would, taken literally, also include surficial
aquifers (also known as water tables) such as the Biscayne
aquifer in southeastern Florida and the sand-and-gravel
aquifer in the western Panhandle. Thus, the amendment as
passed would cover the entire state, and the fiscal effects
could be much more profound than had the referendum
been limited to the Floridan aquifer only. This extensive
coverage adds to the need for clarifying the application of
the amendment before it is put to a vote.
There is no definition of "high recharge" in the proposal.
Without knowing what the Legislature means by the term, it
is impossible to predict the fiscal and environmental effects
of the proposed amendment. Do recharge areas include only
those areas where the aquifer is recharged directly (ie., in
areas where the aquifer is close to the surface), or can it also
apply to lands where there is some hydrologic connection,


even if indirect, to the aquifer (i.e, where water moves
downward through the soil to an aquiclude, whence it moves
laterally, eventually into the aquifer)?

Calculating the amount of water percolating to the
aquifer from the surface on any given parcel may not be
feasible with current knowledge and technology. The US.
Geological Survey is preparing recharge maps of Florida at
a scale of 1:100,000, which is not a fine enough degree of
resolution to be useful for tax assessment purposes; asses-
sors will require a great deal of technical help in estimating
recharge, which may require bore holes, pump tests, etc, all
of which cost money-and even then, recharge estimates will
be based in part on subjective judgment (Dr. R. DHan
Bureau of Groundwater Protection, Florida Department of
Environmental Regulation, pers. comm.). Perhaps the im-
plementing legislation could provide that landowners who
apply for the high-recharge assessment must pay for the
necessary tests.

The Legislature should also make clear whether artificial
recharge facilities, such as stormwater percolation ponds
and drainage wells, qualify lands for preferential assessment.
If so, some minimum water quality standards should be set.
Would domestic septic tanks qualify as artificial recharge sys-
In defining high recharge, the Legislature should also
define the kinds and intensities of uses that will be allowed
in high-recharge areas before the recharge function (quality
as well as quantity) is considered compromised. The cities

of Orlando, Winter Haven, Tallahassee, and Ocala are
among those built over high-recharge areas of the Floridan
aquifer as defined by Stewart on his 1980 map.

In short, the technical questions raised by the amendment
are legion, and maayido not yet have answers. Before voters,
can make sound decisions about the proposed amendment,
the Legislature nedsto formulate a plan for implementing
it. ,

s. What is the intar of the proposed amendment?
At the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee hearing
on this proposal in 187, Senator Brown described its intent
as, first, preserving high-recharge lands, and second, as fol-

We used to have aprettygood citrus industry in my coun-
ty. Now we have n hats er. They're all gone. They're
all dead, and most qee citrus groves were located in the
high recharge area mWche county which is not really suitable
for any other kind cultural purpose. So consequently,
nolongerbeing puti agriculturalsebecausethe groves
aren't there, being n area of high development found
themselves in the sfatin where lands that were assessed at
a relatively low rate, where some, for example, were paying
$34 a year in taxes on that acreage, now find themselves
payingten times that much. And sowe have the unique situa-
tion of pressure being put on them to sell this land for
development rather than preserving it for agricultural use
and continuing to have the benefit of it for water recharge.


Protecting recharge areas can be accomplished more ef-
fectivelyvia land use regulation than through preferential as-
seisment. A House committee staff member described the
" proposed amendment as"the orange grove relief act." If the
Legislature wishes to give tax relief to owners of groves that
were destroyed during the freezes of the last few years, sure-
ly it could find more direct ways of doing so, such as extend-
ing the grace period allowed before groves are replanted
during which vacant land can qualify for the greenbelt as-

The intent of the bluebelt amendment is good, but the
means are insufficient to achieve the goal and may be vul-
nerable to manipulation by land speculators.

At the very least, voters must be given the opportunity to
examine implementinglegislation before they can make in-
formed decisions about the proposed amendment. Making
a permanent change to the state Constitution can have
serious and unexpected consequences; for example, the
homestead exemption and the ban on state income taxes
have compounded the state's chronic fiscal shortfalls. The
problems that this amendment tries to solve may be more ef-
fectively addressed through other means, although such
means might take more political courage than does this

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