Special districts on the rise in Leon
Development agencies can impose taxes on residents
Article Courtesy of The Tallahassee Democrat
By Bruce Ritchie
Published June 17, 2007

Sam DiConcilio says she didn't know in 2003 that moving into Piney Z meant paying more taxes in addition to those paid by other Tallahassee and Leon County residents.

Piney Z is a "community development district," which is a local agency established under state law that can levy taxes to pay for roads, sewer and other development features. She paid $959 on her tax bill last year to the district, in addition to $1,948 for other local property taxes on her $165,000 house.

"Nobody told me. I didn't know I had to pay a fee," DiConcilio said. She said she doesn't know now whether it would have changed her mind about moving there, but she added that the district seems like an advantage for the developer rather than residents.

Community development districts are independent local agencies established under Chapter 189 of Florida statutes. They have been used more by developers in other parts of the state, but are being used more now in Tallahassee and Leon County.

They're not the same as homeowners associations, but they pay for some development features that associations have paid for in the past. Residents can have homeowners association fees in addition to property-tax assessments from their community development districts.

Fallschase, Piney Z and SouthWood each have community-development districts. A fourth is being considered for 508 acres on former Welaunee Plantation property. And The St. Joe Co., developer of SouthWood, has proposed creating a fifth by splitting the SouthWood district into two districts.

There are 509 of the districts in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Community Affairs. And they have their share of controversy locally and statewide.

There is nothing wrong with the districts if people know what they're buying into, said Jan Bergemann of DeLand, president of a group called Cyber Citizens for Justice.

He said he knows many people who have moved out of developments because the district taxes were too high. The group has collected accounts of controversies involving the districts across the state, including developers who supposedly have sold overpriced features to the agencies.

"If you can make a dollar without risking a dime of your own, that's good profit, isn't it?" Bergemann asked.

But attorneys who represent the districts say the developers still must pay a large portion of the assessments for the projects and have to pay again for any of the land they own until they sell it.

The attorneys also point out that state law requires each contract for the initial sale of property within a district to have large bold type stating that taxes can be collected.

"You can do all kinds of disclosure," said Nancy Linnan, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the Piney-Z district. "If somebody is otherwise focused at the time ... it may not register."

Leon County Commissioner Bob Rackleff, who represents the east-side area, said he doesn't think the districts should exist. Although he said he has heard few complaints about Piney Z and SouthWood districts, he has concerns about Fallschase as it begins moving forward after decades of being on hold.

Fallschase is under new ownership and a new district board since AIG Baker bought the property more than a year ago. Rackleff said there was "an incredible amount of self-dealing going on" in the district when it was under the control of former Fallschase landowner Lamar Bailey. "I object to these community development districts under the best of circumstances simply because there is no accountability," he said. "There is no state oversight."

The Florida Department of Community Affairs collects reports from community-development districts but doesn't play an oversight role, department spokesman Jon Peck said.

Crumbaker, who also represents the community-development district in SouthWood, said district audits are reviewed by the state auditor general just as with cities and counties.

But he added that the residents, who can elect all board members after 10 years if more than 250 homes are sold, ultimately decide who is representing their interests. Until that time, they are elected by the landowners - a majority of which is often the developer.

The elected board "is the most direct form of government you can have," he said.

Crumbaker also said he urges community-development districts to educate residents about the taxes they'll have to pay. The districts, he said, publish pamphlets and hold seminars to explain what they do.

"One of the things we always tell clients is disclose, disclose, disclose," he said. "You don't want people coming and saying, 'We didn't know.'