Planner to help sort out land buy
By BARBARA BEHRENDT and BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
INVERNESS -- The School Board is just weeks away from spending $1.2-million for land on which it cannot build without triggering a costly and time-consuming state development review.
Even though the land deal has been in the works for years, the board didn't know about the potential development complications until last week.
Board members learned Tuesday that, if they buy a 150-acre tract of land from the Betz Farm development later this spring, they are buying into a Development of Regional Impact, also known as a DRI.
That acronym is the first in a series of complex new concepts the school system would have to master as it comes to grips with the unique development rules that govern such massive building projects.
Board members expressed alarm that they had not been told until last week that the land they are considering purchasing would remain in the 520-acre DRI. Several also said they wanted to know all the details of what that might mean before moving forward with the land buy.
The board learned of the complication Tuesday when School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick brought up the land purchase and said he didn't have expert knowledge of DRIs.
To learn how this one might affect the property, Fitzpatrick suggested the board hire a planner who worked on the original Betz Farm development as a consultant.
"There are some concerns about what the impact might be if we don't do anything with bricks and mortar for the next five years," Fitzpatrick told the board. "Let's be certain that we understand the DRI process."
Board members voted unanimously to spend $1,500 to hire the planner.
"Tuesday was the first I'd realized that we'd still be obligated by whatever regulations impact the DRI," board member Carol Snyder said on Friday. "It's why I felt it was important that we bring in the consultant."
Ginger Bryant said she figured the planner was hired to help the other board members learn what they needed to know about DRIs. "I don't need that," she said. "My husband was on the County Commission, and I know what it means.
"It means a lot of red tape."
A lot of red tape if the School Board ever wants to put more than athletic fields or agriculture plots on the property, that is.
Jenette Collins, the county's principal planner, warned Fitzpatrick and school district construction director Alan Burcaw that adding student buildings to the new property could trigger a "substantial deviation" in the Betz Farm development order.
That would trigger extensive review of the entire scope of the project, including traffic studies, and scrutiny from several agencies, including the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council and Florida Department of Community Affairs.
At a county planning board hearing last month, Fitzpatrick said the School Board's immediate plans for the 150-acre tract were just fields and access roads. But he said the School Board likely would build something on the property someday, such as a media center or the new Renaissance Center.
"I'm a realist, and I don't want to come back to the (planning board) two years from now and say I need another minor deviation from the DRI because I am going to build something," Fitzpatrick told the planning board.
But it may not be a minor deviation at all. Increasing the car trips to and from the property by 15 percent or more, for example, could create a substantial deviation, Collins said Friday.
"If they do anything beyond the scope of what they said, so it triggers one of these thresholds, they would have to come through the public hearing process," she said.
Just how much of this process would fall to the school district and be paid for by school tax money is unclear.
"I think it's kind of scary," Bryant said. "I want the consultant to explain it all to us."
For several years the district has discussed acquiring property west and north of the high school to add access roads and build school facilities to handle the crowded campus population.
There were concerns about the wetlands that make up a third of the 150-acre parcel. There were worries that the $1.2-million price tag was too high for a parcel the district has no set plans to build a school on.
Through it all, the board stayed on course to make the purchase.
Last month, when the board had to vote again to agree to pay $141,500 more than real estate appraisers said the land was worth, members agreed unanimously. The purchase was sailing toward a closing.
Then, at the end of a long board meeting last week, Fitzpatrick nonchalantly raised the DRI issue. At the time, the board didn't have much to say about the topic.
But late last week, when questioned about Fitzpatrick's request, three board members said they had no idea until that moment they were buying into a DRI. A fourth could not remember the topic ever being discussed with the board.
Each said they would have liked to have known much sooner, and several said they want to know, before finalizing the purchase, the details of just what new or different development regulations the district would have to meet.
The timing of the revelation is significant.
The county's Planning and Development Review Board signed off April 4 on the minor changes to the Betz Farm DRI triggered by the pending land purchase. The nonsubstantial deviations now await County Commission review with the first of two discussions slated for April 23, according to Fitzpatrick.
Among the changes proposed for the 520-acre development is switching the designation of the 150-acre parcel to "school use," moving the proposed housing units from that land to the tract across N Turkey Oak, and dropping plans for a golf course.
While the number of housing units remains the same at about 1,500 concentrated now on a smaller part of the developer's remaining parcel, none of the changes are significant enough to trigger a "substantial deviation" in the eyes of county planners, the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council or the state Department of Community Affairs.
But that could change if the School Board decides the new property is needed immediately to build a school or other facility, Collins said.
The school district's current five-year construction plan doesn't include any major development on the new property. The district has talked of building an access road from the high school to Crystal Street and from the high school to Turkey Oak Drive to alleviate the heavy traffic on Eighth Avenue before and after school.
Fitzpatrick said those roads would be basically driveways for the school and not regular community roadways.
The amount of traffic generated by development in a DRI is one of the major issues scrutinized. Other changes that can trigger a finding of substantial deviation include adding too many housing units to the original plan, adding too much parking or decreasing the amount of open space.
School officials have also talked about immediately moving the high school ball fields onto the new property, freeing up land for portable classrooms and relocating crowded parking areas on the existing Crystal River High School campus.
But just because the five-year plan doesn't include a project doesn't mean that it won't pop up in a year or two as a priority.
Board member Patience Nave, who serves on the district's property acquisition committee and who has been the most vocal supporter of the land purchase, said she knows the district is having trouble finding large pieces of available property for future school use.
But even so, she said she did not recall ever hearing about the DRI complications before Tuesday night.
She said she planned to talk to Fitzpatrick about the issue and wondered "why do we have a consultant after all of this."
While board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel was also surprised by the DRI revelation, she said she is still eager to move forward with the purchase, whatever the implications.
"The bottom line that I really have to look at is that we need that property bad there," she said. "We're just going to have to take some of the bad with the good."
Fitzpatrick said he didn't recommend hiring the planner to help the board decide whether to purchase the property. He sought help instead for the board in planning future development on the site after it buys the land.
He also said the district has been aware from the beginning that the land purchased would remain in the DRI forever. The point of a DRI is to oversee development of large tracts of land which, when built out, will have an impact on an entire region.
Being part of a DRI is not like having an extra layer of control over a property, but rather a different layer of control than standard zoning, Fitzpatrick said.
The DRI ties the school district to the Betz Farm development, possibly meaning that what the developer does affects what the district can do and vice versa. But Fitzpatrick said he did not believe the connection should cause the district any problems in developing whatever it needs on the site.
Board member Snyder said she would have liked to know about all the complexities of the purchase a lot sooner.
Snyder said she was also concerned about anything that might tie the district's hands in its efforts to develop the new property. She noted that there could be several reasons for school officials to move quickly to build there, ranging from student populations growing faster than expected to a land deal for a new site for the Renaissance Center falling through.
"Plans are a wonderful thing, and everyone needs to have them . . . but we need the flexibility to do what we need to do when we need to do it," Snyder said. "I don't want anything to hamper the school just because it might help the developer."
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