“Oh look, there they are!” my mother said, swerving the car a bit as she pointed to the side of the road. “The rent-a-cows!”
And indeed, there they were, a tiny herd of cattle — maybe a half-dozen of them, from what I could see — marooned in a wide, fenced-in field of grass off the highway, like the last, cud-chewing remnants of a long-vanished family farm. Perhaps they would’ve seemed less out of place if we weren’t just a few minutes away from Medical City, the University of Central Florida’s sprawling new campus of hospitals and teaching facilities that’s becoming a magnet for Orlando-area developers. Its gleaming new VA hospital loomed ahead.
My mother had been talking about the rent-a-cows since she had begun house-hunting in the area a couple of months before. It was a tax thing, she explained one day. You could rent a cow, put it in your yard, and get a property tax break. I took the story with a grain of salt. Zoe had spent the last four decades of her life living in New York City before moving to Florida for a job at UCF’s medical school. I assumed something had just gotten lost in translation.
No. Sadly, my mother was basically right.
It’s known as Florida’s greenbelt law. The statute is meant to preserve farmland by taxing it at special, low rate. But some of the act’s biggest beneficiaries are deep-pocketed developers, who often take advantage of it by literally renting cows. […]
The total cost of these abuses isn’t clear, but there are hints that it may be significant. According to a 2006 Associated Press article, the law costs Florida $950 million a year total. Some of the breaks go to legitimate commercial farms. But according to the Herald’s 2005 investigation, more than two-thirds of the loophole’s top 60 beneficiaries in South Florida weren’t farmers.
“This thing’s a game. Always has been since I’ve been here,” one cattle rancher told the paper.