ORLANDO-A surprise element has surfaced in Orange County’s Circuit Court land-tax lawsuit against Universal Orlando–land the theme park operator claims is worth only $400 per acre has been sold for $662,711 per acre, according to county real estate records.

Intrawest/Orlando Development Corp., a Canadian investment group, paid $19.6 million, or $15.21 per sf, for a 29.5-acre tract in the city’s main tourist corridor at International Drive and Universal Boulevard. Intrawest officials couldn’t be reached at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline to learn what it plans to do with the dirt. The deed was recorded March 8.

Meanwhile, Orange Circuit Court Judge Jay P. Cohen is expected to rule this month on a suit filed by Orange County property appraiser Bill Donegan. The trial ended May 28. The suit alleges Universal has been deceiving the county for years by wrongfully claiming an agriculture zoning classification on its total 1,240 acres. The suit maintains the land is being prepared for commercial sale. Universal argues the land is a pine tree farm and qualifies as an agricultural zoning under state law.

At stake are big tax dollars. Universal now pays $390,000 a year in county property taxes under the agricultural zoning. If it loses the suit, Universal’s annual tax bill will jump to $1.8 million, staffers in Donegan’s office confirm to GlobeSt.com.

The lawsuit’s outcome also could affect Universal’s December 2003 sale of 1,800 acres near the four-million-sf Orange County Convention Center. Georgia developer Stan Thomas of Thomas Enterprises Inc. of Smyrna, GA has the land along Sand Lake Road near Universal Boulevard under contract, as GlobeSt.com previously reported.

For property appraiser Donegan, a victory against Universal will give him additional legal ammunition to use in expected near-future court fights with several other big-name landowners here. Donegan has won six straight victories in the past two years at the county’s Value Adjustment Board appeal level against Universal, Hilton Hotels Corp., Hyatt Hotels Corp., 5226 Hotard Co. Sierra Florida Properties and RH Resorts, the largest privately held hotel chain in Florida headed by Harris Rosen, a prominent area entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Donegan couldn’t be reached by GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. But in a previous interview with GlobeSt.com, he said, “The integrity of the agriculture zoning is at stake here. When I was first asked to look at these properties, I saw that development had already started. Roads were being built. Land was being sold off. Infrastructure was being put in place. I said to the developers, ‘Hey, fellas. There isn’t any farming going on here. This is all commercial development.’”

Donegan, a former Orange County commissioner, has been property appraiser for the past six years. He replaced Richard Crotty, the current chairman of the Orange County board of commissioners.

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