Mormon church is large landowner in Florida

The Tampa Tribune/January 22, 2012

Florida's Mormon population is small, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a large footprint in the state.

Through several corporate subsidiaries, the Mormon church is Florida's sixth-largest private landowner, with nearly 300,000 acres spread across at least six counties, including Hillsborough and Manatee.

Together, those holdings amount to more than 450 square miles, about a third larger than the size of Seminole County.

The church holds land in Florida under corporate entities known as Farmland Reserve Inc., Suburban Land Reserve Inc. and Property Reserve Inc. The land is designated for agriculture.

The church also owns land used for worship sites, which are not taxed.

In Hillsborough County, Mormon church subsidiaries own about 5,000 acres in Ruskin. Last year, crews planted part of that land with citrus saplings.

The bulk of the church's land belongs to a cattle ranch that straddles Oceola, Orange and Brevard counties. The Mormon church is the largest private landowner in all three counties. The church has owned the land, known as Deseret Ranches Florida, for decades.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said the church runs agricultural operations as long-term investments and as a way to provide food for the needy. The church runs its own system of grocery stores known as Bishop's Storehouses and has two in the Orlando area.

According to published reports, the church owns farmland in the Central Valley of California and is also among the largest landowners in Nebraska.

It's unclear how the church's landholdings might influence support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, when he campaigns in Florida this week.

"Certainly landholders in Florida have a disproportionate influence on politics," said Dan A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. "Bigger landholders have bigger sway, particularly in county governance."

The church's footprint in Central Florida may encourage local leaders to back Romney out of deference to their biggest property owner, Smith said.

Does that mean ranch hands and farm workers will also back Romney?

"Certainly the employees of these corporations involved in agro-business know who their employer is," Smith said. "Does that mean they're going to support that person for office? I have a hard time believing the cattle ranchers of Osceola County are beholden to Mitt Romney."

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