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Amendment 4

Gulf County Commissioner Billy Traylor says he is supporting Amendment 4 on Tuesday's ballot because he prefers the tiny fishing villages and pine tree farms of his rural county to the widespread development of South Florida.

While he doesn't envision shopping malls, big hotels and chain restaurants anytime soon in his small Panhandle county, he worries about future development spoiling the region's natural beauty in decades to come.

The amendment, which has broad support from a coalition of environmental, business and government groups, would give landowners a tax incentive to place their land in conservation and declare it either permanently or temporarily off limits to developers. It has no organized opposition.

Amendment 4 would create conservation as a new land-use classification, giving conserved property a lowered tax assessment similar to that of agricultural land. Legislators would decide how long property must remain undeveloped to meet the criteria for the conservation classification.

The amendment would eliminate property taxes on lands placed in a perpetual conservation easement, which would prohibit future development on the land because the classification remains even if the land is sold. Like all proposed amendments, it requires 60 percent approval for passage.

"This allows someone to take the cows off their land and instead place it conservation use," said Preston Robertson, the amendment's creator and vice president of the nonprofit Florida Wildlife Federation.

Robertson said the amendment shouldn't cause a decline in property tax revenues because much of the land that would be placed in conservation is currently being used as agriculture.

Brian Yablonski, vice president of public affairs for The St. Joe Co. and a member of the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, backed the amendment at the commission.

St. Joe, a one-time timber company, owns large swaths of Panhandle lands including most of Gulf County, Traylor's home. It is slowly developing the land into high-end vacation homes and commercial projects.

Robertson called Yablonski's support of the amendment a "red herring" because other commissioners also supported the amendment even though St. Joe may receive "some tax benefit."

Cragin Mosteller of the Florida Association of Counties said her organization supports the amendment despite the possibility of some lost property tax revenues because members believe it has a long-term benefit for the state.

The amendment also has the backing of Audubon of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, The Nature Conservancy and Florida Tax Watch, which supports the measure but warns it could be abused by landowners seeking tax breaks if legislators are not careful in drafting its supporting legislation.

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