Greenbelt Law Gives Tax Break to Billionaire's Estate - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Greenbelt Law Gives Tax Break to Billionaire's Estate

Billionaire hospital executive Thomas Frist Jr. Billionaire hospital executive Thomas Frist Jr.

Property taxes are the top source of revenue for schools, along with police, fire and other government services.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered some of the Midstate's richest people have found a way to get out of paying some of their property taxes.

It's all thanks to the state's Greenbelt law, a property tax break that was passed more than 30 years ago mainly to help farmers. Lawmakers said they wanted to protect farm and forest lands to provide "food and fiber for a hungry world."

"The cost of everything today -- the fuel, the machinery and all our supplies -- is more and more," said Rep. Stratton Bone, D-Lebanon, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Bone's family has farmed land in Wilson County for decades. So he can tell you firsthand how important the Greenbelt law is to farmers.

"In order for us to make a living out here, we can't pay those extremely high taxes like this. It benefited the farmers is what it did."

Read "What Property Qualifies for Greenbelt Law?"
But in Nashville's affluent Belle Meade community, past the "Do Not Enter" sign and up a private drive, you'll find a piece of land that's taking big advantage of the tax break.

As seen from Sky5HD, it's land that surrounds a home unlike any farmhouse you've ever seen.

"It certainly seemed a bit unusual," said Davidson County Property Assessor George Rooker.

Rooker said eyebrows were raised around his office by the application to put much of the 50-plus-acre estate under Greenbelt.

The 10-bedroom mansion at the center of property, with its swimming pool and private gardens, is home to billionaire hospital executive Thomas Frist Jr. Frist has been repeatedly listed among the "Forbes 400" richest Americans.

"It's a piece of property that typically one would think of as more a residential type use," Rooker said.

For Frist, the exemption has meant big bucks -- according to Rooker's office -- cutting the appraisal of his property last year from more than $16 million, to less than $10 million.

That slashed his property tax bill by more than $68,000. That's money that didn't go to pay for government services.

"Our hands really are tied," Rooker said. "We simply administer the process."
The assessor explained that, because of all the trees that dot the estate, Frist applied for a tax break under the forest provisions of the Greenbelt law.  All the law requires is a forest management plan approved by the state forester.

Frist's plan is basic: Harvest any dead or dying trees damaged by wind or ice storms, while letting the rest grow.

Read Frist's Greenbelt application and forest plan

For a farmer, Bone said, that's not much of a plan.

"I think it's wasteful, so to speak, if you don't harvest those trees when they are ready to harvest. We need the lumber."
Down the road, at the corner of Chickering and Old Hickory Boulevard, you'll find another estate that enjoys a big tax break -- thanks to Greenbelt.

And you can find the same thing along Old Smyrna Road in Brentwood. A recent study by Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations questions whether the area, with its million-dollar homes, really needs a tax break that was intended for farmers.

"Greenbelt itself reduced the tax base in several counties by almost 20 percent," said Stan Chervin, TACIR's senior research associate.

Chervin wrote the TACIR staff report. He says, along Old Smyrna Road, developers bought one property for $9 million -- then used Greenbelt to get a 99 percent tax break. That, he says, is money that could have been used to pay for government services.

Read TACIR's study, "Greenbelt Revisited"

"Property taxes are the single most important source of revenue in every county but one and likely are going to be more important in the future."

Chervin recommended that lawmakers may want to consider tightening controls on the Greenbelt law so that it's helping those who really depend on farming for a living.

"The intent was to help the agricultural people -- that was the intent," Bone emphasized.
So while lawmakers clearly intended to give Tennessee's hard-working farmers a break on their property taxes, the question is: Did they ever intend to give billionaires more money to pump into luxurious estates like Frist's Belle Meade home?

To be clear, Frist and the others are doing just what the law allows.

Through a spokesman, Frist emailed the following statement:

"We do not receive a tax break meant to help farmers. We do own a piece of non-residential land next to our home that is taxed as forest land because we voluntarily made those 25 acres protected green space rather than allowing it to be subdivided into residential lots.   In all, our tax assessment for this year is $155,000 on our home and land."

When NewsChannel 5 asked the spokesman if Frist might let his estate be turned into a subdivision if he didn't get the tax break, he just laughed and said the statement speaks for itself.

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