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ORLANDO-Commerce won out over religion as Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan rules half of the 15-acre, five-month-old Holy Land Experience near Walt Disney World is a bonafide tourist attraction and not a tax-exempt religious site.

The ruling means Baptist minister Marvin Rosenthal, founder of the $16 million park and leader of Orlando-based Zion’s Hope Inc., will pay about $320,000 in annual property taxes when all of the exhibits are completed instead of $25,000. He has been battling the county over the tax issue since February.

Rosenthal couldn’t be reached at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. But representatives in his office tell GlobeSt.com he is preparing to sue the county in Orange Circuit Court, arguing Holy Land Experience is a nonprofit venture certified by state and federal statutes. The county maintains it can assess property taxes based on use rather than ownership.

In this instance, the property appraiser ruled the ministry’s church sanctuary located on 8.57 acres is tax exempt. But the remaining 6.43 acres which displays the ministry’s museum and exhibits at a $17 admission charge is assessed at $1.2 million. That gives the land a current market value of $186,625 per acre or about $4.28 per sf.

The Florida Department of Revenue confirms Holy Land Experience is exempt from state sales taxes even if it has to pay country property taxes. The minister contends the park and ministry also don’t have to pay federal taxes.

Managers of area tourist locations tell GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity that compared to nearby attractions, Holy Land Experience is getting off easy, even if it has to pay the full $320,000 tax bill each year.

For example, property appraiser’s office records show Walt Disney’s annual tax bill is $78.2 million; Universal Orlando, $28 million; and SeaWorld, $5.3 million.

A representative in Rosenthal’s office confirms Holy Land Experience will have to increase its $17 admission price if the courts rule against the park to throw out the property appraiser’s decision.

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