Two hotel chains lose agricultural exemption on property


Two hotel chains have lost their bid to claim agricultural exemptions on land along a busy tourist strip. A hearing officer ruled that Hilton Hotels Corp. and Hyatt weren’t able to claim the exemption that lowered their tax bill by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Alison Yurko, with Orange County’s Value Adjustment Board, said in her Friday decision that the properties weren’t in the agricultural business. ‘The agricultural use is temporary, transient, capable of immediately reinventing itself as a hotel as the market warrants’, she wrote in both rulings.

In the past, officials from both hotel chains have said they followed Florida law when seeking the exemptions, which must be renewed each year. The exemptions allowed the Hyatt to save more than $874,000 and the Hilton to save about $400,000.

Julie Kendig, an attorney for the hotels, didn’t immediately return a phone call Monday night. The hotels have the option of suing in circuit court to overturn the decisions.

Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan has been fighting for more than a year the efforts of five major businesses on International Drive to have their property taxed like farms or other ‘bona fide agriculture’ operations. Last year, Orange County’s Value Adjustment Board sided with the five companies, granting them a combined $4.4 million worth of exemptions. Donegan then sued to overturn the rulings.

In October, he won the first lawsuit when a circuit judge ruled that RH Resorts could not claim an agricultural exemption simply because it had planted pine trees on its valuable, tourist-area land. Other lawsuits, involving Universal Orlando and Sierra Florida Properties, were pending.

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