Court again upholds Fla. homeowner tax breaks

AP News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2009 9:36 AM

A three-judge panel Tuesday rejected another challenge to state constitutional amendments that give property tax breaks to Florida's primary homeowners, but not to owners of second homes.

The panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal disagreed with arguments that the amendments violate U.S. constitutional rights of travel and interstate commerce by favoring longtime Florida homeowners over those who have recently moved to the state.

The judges cited a July decision that also upheld the Save Our Homes Amendment, which limits annual assessment increases to no more than 3 percent for homesteads, in a case filed by out-of-state residents who own second homes.

In the new case filed by recently arrived Florida residents, the judges also for the first time upheld a new state constitutional amendment passed last year that includes a "portability" provision. It lets homeowners take at least part of their Save Our Homes benefits with them when they move.

The panel, though, returned a third appeal attacking both tax breaks to a trial judge for reconsideration because he erroneously dismissed the case on grounds that he lacked jurisdiction. That case also was filed by out-of-state residents who own second homes in Florida.

The appellate court in July ruled the tax benefit is based on the way the property is used, not on the status of the owner as a resident or nonresident. That case, now on appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, did not include the portability provision.

Former Florida State University President Tablot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, now a law professor at the school, represented the challengers in the two new cases. He argued the portability provision made Save Our Homes even more onerous and unfair to recent arrivals and nonresident owners.

D'Alemberte was disappointed but not entirely surprised by the ruling in the case filed by a Tallahassee couple and two other recent arrivals who had bought homes in Charlotte and Palm Beach counties.

"My guarded optimism may have been too guarded," D'Alemberte said.

He had regaled the judges with a colorful oral argument last month that feature a "magic potion" tale and invitation to a "house of mirrors." The court responded with two brief and dry but unanimous opinions that did not specifically address his portability argument.

D'Alemberte said his clients have not yet decided on a further appeal, but he said it's likely they'll also look to the Florida or U.S. supreme courts for relief.

He had been confident, though, the appellate court would reverse Circuit Judge William L. Gary's dismissal of the nonresidents' case.

"That's not exactly a victory," D'Alemberte said.

It now goes back to Gary's Tallahassee courtroom for a decision on the merits with the other two appellate rulings serving as precedents.

Gov. Charlie Crist led the campaign for Amendment 1, which includes the portability provision. A Crist spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.