Sun-Sentinel, Wednesday, April 2, 1997
Farmers cultivate effort to save land

Group seeks to restrict growth, ease squeeze on agriculture

By Jodie Needle
staff writer

DAVIE- It's 82 degrees on a sunny afternoon, but shade from a hammock of oak trees keeps the horses, goats, and chickens cool. So too does a mild breeze that rustles palm fronds nearby.

A rooster declares his presence with a cock-a-doodle-do. But Bacall, a French sheepdog, is not impressed. She yawns and her shaggy body becomes visible in the haystack that envelops her.

Suddenly a telephone rings, disrupting the natural calm.

Welcome to Julie Aitken's Oak Ridge Farm, nestled just west of Flamingo Road and north of Griffin Road amid the concrete and asphalt of surrounding development.

The 19-acre horse farm and others like it once characterized much of South Florida. But as the region explodes with growth, Aitken and other local farmers are banding together to save the remaining acres.

Aiming to work the land forever, they have formed the Broward Farmer's Association. The group's members, who come from across the county, exchange ideas and are trying to restrict overdevelopment.

Their battle may not be easy. There are 17,937 acres of county land classified agricultural. That is about eight times less farm acres than in 1950, when the county had more than 139,000 such acres. Since 1995, the area has lost more than 1500 agricultural acres.

Aitken calls her farm, which is part of Davie's remaining 1,000 farm acres, her "island of tranquility."

"There are days that go by that I don't leave the farm," she said. "I love the quiet. The only noise out here is the noise I make on the farm."

Aitken hopes the new farm group can preserve that peacefulness.

The group emerged as a result of a rule the Davie Town Council almost approved in December- a rule that could have put several small farmers out of business.

Florida law exempt farmers from having to obtain town building permits for barns, chicken coops, or other non-residential farm buildings. But town officials say the law is too vaguely defined.

So they attempted to define some terms. And they said a farm must consist of at least 5 acres, though neither Broward County nor the state uses size as a criterion for farms.

"We wanted to weed out the abusers from those that are truly agricultural endeavors," said Michele Mellgren, head of Davie's development services.

A town memo states that many of Davie's farms are " too small tocontain" debris should a hurricane hit and says that could endanger people.

But farmers insist their barns, shade houses and other structures are safe.

"I'm not going to build it for it to fall down," says Richard Naugle, who owns about 75 acres in Davie. "If it's debris they're worried about, then why would my 75 acres be less likely to blow away than 5 acres?"

Mellgren said that the 5-acre designation was arbitrary and that the town never intended to hurt the farmers.

The issue packed Town Hall with dozens of farmers ready to protest. Officials first decided to delay the issue until after the election; then Mellgren said it would be tabled indefinitely.But fearing the rule's potential impact, those in the farming community wanted to prepare for the future .

Had the rule passed, small-farm owners in Davie could have lost the agricultural classification for their land- a classification that gives them big property tax breaks.

"If they get people's perception of farms to change, then they might get the tax assessor to say that you're not really a farm and you shouldn't get the tax break," said Pete Prior, who leases land to some farmers.

"And, if you go bankrupt, the developers can get the land," said Aitken, who won a court battle in 1991 to get horse farms classified as agricultural. "If first they cancel all farms under 5 acres, then they'll do that to the ones with 10 acres and so on. We have to protect each other."

Other farmers agree.

"Im not affected so far, but if the smallest ones are protected, then we'll all be protected," said Anthony Galleta, who co-owns George and Anthony Nursery, a 10-acre nursery in business since 1965.

Spearheading this group are Delia Alonso and Renee Pardo, co-owners of the 3.5 acre Pot Luck Nursery in Davie, just east of Flamingo Road north of Griffin Road.

Alonso and Pardo say they would have had to close their nursery if Davie had approved the rule.

According to the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office, thetwo pay about $450 a year for taxes on their nursery land, not including taxes on buildings or other land improvements. If they lost their agricultural classification, their taxes would become about $3,300 for the land alone.

"It's always considered in the public interest to maintain and retain farms to feed our people, so the tax breaks are an encouragement," said Terence McElroy, spokesman for Florida Agricultural Commissioner Bob Crawford. "And it's more expensive to provide services to 100 acres of homes compared to 100 acres of farmland."

But taking away those breaks can mean big bucks, so when Alsonso and Pardo learned of the town's proposed rule, they wrote, faxed, and phoned more than 100 farmers from Davie to north Broward.

"We wanted to form a watchdog group so we could have more clout and visibility," said Pardo, who started the nursery with Alsonso in 1985.

"People want to come to Davie for this," Pardo said, pointing to the lush greenery. "But if you fill up all the spaces without preserving this, then none of this is left."

Pardo and Alsonso said when the issue resurfaces, they will be ready.

"We need to maintain and preserve some of old Davie while moving forward with progress," Alonso said.


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