Just over five years after former Santa Rosa County property appraiser Gregory Brown sued the city of Gulf Breeze over a tax exemption for the Tiger Point Golf Club, a key question in the case could make its way all the way to the state Supreme Court.
In March, the state’s First District Court of Appeal reversed the original ruling on the case, meaning the golf course was not tax-exempt after the city brought in a private company to manage operations and that the city owed taxes on the property dating back to 2016.
The city appealed for a rehearing, but in late March made a retroactive payment of $255,008.70 on the property while it waited for the second appeal decision.
Read about the original lawsuit: Gulf Breeze sued over golf course tax status
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The second appeal decision was released in May, and, while the court denied a full rehearing, it did certify a question to the Florida Supreme Court.
“Is a city’s public golf course still being ‘used exclusively by it for municipal or public purposes,’ so that it remains tax exempt … if the city turns the course and its appurtenant facilities over to a private business to operate and manage for the business’s own profit or loss in return for an annual fee that the business pays to the city for that privilege,” the May decision reads.
The question was certified as “one of great public importance,” meaning the high court’s answer could have legal ramifications for the entire state.
How did we get here?
According to court documents, Gulf Breeze acquired the property in 2012 to treat and dispose of wastewater and to provide storm water protection for surrounding subdivisions. The city also used the property for recreational purposes.
Gulf Breeze operated the golf course and clubhouse until late 2015 and the county’s former property appraiser approved the city’s applications for tax exemptions from 2012 to 2015. Once the city brought on the company IGC – Tiger Point Golf Club LLC to operate the course in 2015, questions were raised over whether the agreement was a lease, which was part of the original argument in nullifying the property’s tax-exempt status.
Initially, a special magistrate brought on by the Value Adjustment Board found the agreement was not a lease, siding with the city.
In 2017, the former property appraiser filed a complaint in trial court challenging the special magistrate’s decision. While the action was pending, the former property appraiser denied the city’s 2017 application for a tax exemption.
The trial court found that the agreement was not a lease, but on appeal, appellate court found in March 2022 that because the property was not used exclusively for a public purpose, it did not need to decide whether the agreement could be defined as a lease.
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The March decision sides in favor of the former property appraiser, ultimately ruling that the golf course’s property was not ad valorem tax-exempt after Gulf Breeze brought on Tiger Point.
The News Journal reached out to Gulf Breeze’s City Manager Samantha Abell, but she said the city would only comment through its legal team on this topic.
The News Journal reached out to legal teams on both sides of the case. The Levy Law Firm, which represents the former property appraiser, declined to comment. And McDonald Fleming, LLP, which represents Gulf Breeze, did not respond to the News Journal’s request for comment.
Greg Brown II, the county’s current property appraiser and son of the property appraiser in this case, told the News Journal he has mainly been focused on his office’s own tasks, and has not mulled over the decision much.
“I think it (the May decision) just adds further credibility to the reason why the taxes were imposed to begin with and why we initiated it and put it on from the outset,” Brown II said.
The March decision ruled in favor of the county’s former property appraiser, in part, because of the potential for private profit and risk.
“Because the city allowed Tiger Point to retain profits generated by the city’s golf course and related facilities, the city did not use those properties exclusively for a municipal or public purpose,” the decision reads. “Thus, the city was not entitled to ad valorem tax exemptions for the golf course and related facilities.”
The March ruling also touches on the wider implications of a decision like this, making the distinction that not all for-profit ventures involving public entities are the same, and that the property here had been converted to a private commercial enterprise.
“Nothing about this court’s holding suggests that municipal-owned properties always risk losing their ad valorem tax-exempt status whenever municipalities contract with private, for-profit property management companies,” the decision reads.