Law on city's side, logic on county's side
By DAN DeWITT
BROOKSVILLE -- If the Brooksville City Council approves the annexation of 1,600 acres owned by LandMar Group LLC, the city will suddenly add a flap of land that extends to Powell Road, nearly 5 miles south of downtown Brooksville.
The addition would increase the area of the city by more than 50 percent.
To Bill Buztrey, Hernando County's chief assistant attorney, that does not sound "reasonably compact," as Florida law says such additions must be. That means there may be legal justification to contest the annexation, he said.
"I think there are grounds to challenge," said Buztrey.
Hampton Ridge, a 799-home subdivision that may be the first of a series of projects on the property, has created tension between the county and the city almost since LandMar first broached the idea a year ago.
Both governments are competing for the lucrative contract to provide sewer and water service to the development. They also have a different overall attitude toward the project.
City leaders -- who say they have a firm legal right to annex the property -- all seem to favor its development as a way to expand the city's tax base and pump money into the economy.
County leaders, partly because of concerns about its effect on the environment and community, have advocated a more cautious approach.
Which view ultimately prevails may depend on the issue of annexation, though legal experts say the law probably favors the city.
At its meeting Monday night, the City Council will take the first of two votes necessary to annex the entire 1,600-acre LandMar parcel. The council will also vote to rezone 840 acres of the land to allow the subdivision and a golf course.
The county has not decided whether to challenge the annexation, though several of its leaders want to explore the possibility.
"I think it's something we have to look at," said county Commissioner Chris Kingsley.
"A big sinewy strip of land that goes that far into the county, I'm not sure that's in the best interest of the people."
If the county does challenge, it would be typical of the shifting pattern of annexation disputes around the state. In the past, most cases have been brought by residents outside cities who were resisting annexation, said Joe Little, a law professor at the University of Florida.
Now, complaints tend to come from counties trying to prevent cities from enveloping proposed developments, he said.
"In terms of history, the tables have exactly turned," Little said.
And the root cause in many cases, Little said, is the same one some people suspect is behind LandMar's request to become part of Brooksville. Developers moving to counties with relatively strict growth management rules often seek to be incorporated by cities that are eager for growth, Little said.
"It seems like they are taking the path of least resistance," Brad Bates, vice chairman of the Nature Coast Chapter of the Sierra Club, said of LandMar.
But lawyers who have pursued these cases have a warning for the county. Florida's laws put up few obstacles to so-called voluntary annexation, which is when a landowner requests to become part of a city.
That is the message City Attorney David La Croix has passed on to council members.
The voluntary annexation statute explicitly forbids enclaves, which are parcels of unincorporated land that are surrounded by a city. Otherwise, as long as the new parcel borders the city -- and Brooksville and the LandMar property share a boundary about a half-mile long -- any judge would approve it.
"(Enclaves) are the only grounds that someone could legitimately raise," La Croix said. "I've seen some annexations that you wouldn't believe, that look like an octopus."
Gary Oldehoff, Martin County's attorney from 1997 to 2000, fought the effort of 40 landowners north and south of Stuart, the county's largest city, to be annexed. They sought to do so, Oldehoff said, because the county would have required road improvements before they would allow any development of the property.
The county ultimately dropped the cases in 2000, but most of the court decisions up to that time had favored the city, Oldehoff said. Although many states recognize that limiting annexation is a way of controlling sprawl, Florida does not.
"It really is on (the cities') side," he said of the state law.
Whether the LandMar property is part of the county or city may not ultimately make much difference to the general public.
County Administrator Paul McIntosh sees the issue being mostly whether the county or city is better able to provide utilities and other services.
The county, which is providing sewer and water to the Hernando Oaks subdivision, just across U.S. 41 from the LandMar property, could easily run lines to Hampton Ridge. It could provide fire and law enforcement protection with relative ease.
The city, meanwhile, would have to greatly expand its police and fire departments, he said. Also, the city's ability to provide utility service is doubtful, considering that it has not been able to complete its first, and much more modest effort, to extend sewer lines south of the city to the county's new animal control center, McIntosh said.
"It's now six or eight months after we expected to have that service available."
Beyond that, he said, the county wants to see the development completed almost as much as the city does.
"I think the majority of commissioners is eager to see the development come," he said.
City Council member Joe Johnston III said the city will easily be able to provide all of the necessary services to Hampton Ridge for several reasons.
The development will take several years to complete, giving the city time to expand its services. The expanding tax base will give it money to do so. Also, he said, LandMar has discussed helping the city in a variety of ways: providing space and possibly money to build fire and police substations, and also helping the city expand its sewage treatment capacity.
Some county commissioners say that, despite McIntosh's statement, they are not yet ready to back the project.
They worry that it will pour traffic onto county roads, pump millions of gallons from the aquifer beneath the county and contribute to the load of nitrates drifting down to the aquifer.
It is also inconsistent with the county's comprehensive growth plan, which designates most of the land owned by LandMar as "rural."
Ed Burr, LandMar's president and chief executive officer, said he is not trying to avoid the scrutiny of the county.
"We're not trying to duck anything," he said.
In discussing the issue with both the county and the city, he said, he understood the two parties had agreed that Brooksville had the right to serve his development.
"We had that collective impression from both parties," Burr said.
"If the city is not going to be serving us, and if the county is going to be serving us, we don't want to be in the city."
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