Suit Filed Against Flagler County Property Appraiser Offers Window into How Land is Valued

Is Flagler Estates landowner a farmer or a real estate investor? Issue puts Flagler Estates in the spotlight again.

September 11, 2007 – Palm Coast, FloridaA civil suit was recently filed against Flagler County’s Property Appraiser, James Gardner, Jr., for removing the “tree farm” agricultural exemption from lots in Flagler Estates owned by Lawrence V. Tilton. In effect, this raised the annual property tax on each of the several one acre plus lots owned by Tilton from about $3.00 to about $113.00. Not a big deal if you own only one lot, but the Property Appraiser’s website lists Tilton as the beneficial owner of 267 Flagler Estate lots. Tilton really is a farmer, but the question is whether he is operating his several lots as individual tree farms, as he claims, or is he just a real estate investor taking advantage of a tax loophole.


What’s the issue? The state statute covering agricultural exemption is poorly crafted and prone to abuse. The intent of the law is not to allow property owners to simply elect an exemption to reduce their property tax. It’s intended to recognize that a farm, producing cabbage, timber, sod or other crop cannot be taxed at the same rate as a parcel primed for development or, for that matter, a one acre vacant lot. An agricultural exemption can be valid even though the property use is not producing a profit at the time. However, it presumes an expectation of profit from the agricultural activity over time.


For several years, Tilton has been acquiring lots in Flagler Estates at bargain prices, often at tax deed sales for only a few hundred dollars. Typically, he clear-cuts, sells the timber, and eventually resells the lots. Since 2005, public records show that he sold 56 lots for a total of $1.68 million. That’s $30,000 per lot. One acre parcels cannot be expected to be profitable tree farms, but they can yield a nice profit when sold as vacant lots. An examination of these facts led to the removal of the “tree farm” exemption.


Tilton appealed the decision, forcing the question to go to an impartial Value Adjustment Board (VAB). The VAB upheld Gardner, ruling that his office had correctly followed the prescribed rules and procedures, thus achieving a “presumption of correctness.” The presumption of correctness puts the onus on Tilton to prove his case since Gardner is “presumed to be correct.” This is a legal distinction not in Tilton’s favor in the upcoming civil suit.


Flagler Estates is located in the northwest corner of Flagler County. It has a storied history of land speculation and questionable transactions. The portion of Flagler Estates located within Flagler County has no public services. The Flagler County website warns that no building permits are currently being issued in Flagler Estates. Yet there have been 12 sales recorded in 2007, the highest sale price being $20,000.


William F. Tilton owned Flagler Estates known as Gopher Ridge (Ten Thousand Acres). He gave the land to his six sons. It became known as The Six-T Ranch Corp. On July 8, 1969 they sold it to World Wide Development Company of Florida Corp. World Wild cleared the land with the intention of farming. However, it was not financially feasible, so World Wide sold it to Florida General Equities who began the unrecorded subdivision now known as Flagler Estates. Florida General Equities, a defunct corporation, began the promotion and sale of this 10,000 acre farming tract around 1970. The developer did not install the necessary infrastructure as required to serve this development.
In 1971, the Florida Legislature established the Flagler Estates Road and Water Control District. By assessment to each property, revenue was generated to install portions of the necessary infrastructure. These improvements have been limited to Units I, II and III (5,449 lots) lying in St. Johns County (north of Division Street). A Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) was established to dedicate tax dollars toward improving infrastructure and promoting redevelopment. However, progress is slow.
Zoning in the St. Johns portion is very permissive. Residents can put practically any structure on their land. Nearly all streets are dirt or grass covered. For many, this is a plus. However, the low level of public services provided, including limited police presence has spawned problems. Visit or for a glimpse of the issues they face.
The District assessments in Flagler County were phased out by Legislative action. The Legislature found that it is unfair to levy assessments because Flagler County owners cannot feasibly build on their property. District assessments were lowered by 20% per year and eliminated January 1, 2004.
There are 1,935 Flagler Estate lots in the northwest corner of Flagler County. Zoning is R1, which prohibits mobile and modular homes. Average lot size is above one acre. 93 of these lots are designated as conservation and are not usable for residential purposes until and unless the property receives a wetlands alteration permit from the State of Florida (click here for a list of the 93 lots). From the Flagler County website: “No facilities or services are available, or scheduled to become available, in Flagler Estates. Much of the property is low lying and subject to periodic inundation. The streets are not dedicated to the public nor are they deeded to a private or public maintenance entity. Because of the above conditions, Flagler County will not issue building permits for these lots.”
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