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Land knot untangled; taxpayers are spared

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

David Hickey and Pat Deustchman both winced last week when I mentioned to them that the school district had dodged a bullet in its dealings for the Betz Farm property.

The land purchase, necessary to ease overcrowding at Crystal River High School, was never in doubt, both the school superintendent and School Board chairwoman indicated. A little bump in the road, perhaps, but everything was always under control.

I'm not so sure. If I were about to close on a piece of property only to be told there was a chance that I couldn't build what I needed to on it, I'd be a tad concerned. If I were an elected official conducting this transaction on the public's behalf, I'd also wonder how this would reflect on my competence.

Thanks to some last-minute finagling, the problems were solved. That's the good news.

Why a land deal two years in the making came to this point, however, is cause for some concern.

Let me say up front that the school district folks involved in the situation should not be expected to be experts on the complexities of land development. We hire them to run a school system, to know about reading, writing and arithmetic. It's unfair to demand that they also be knowledgeable of state rules governing something as complicated as a development of regional impact, where simple questions defy easy answers.

However, as stewards of a growing school system that, from time to time, has to acquire property, district staff must be able to provide the board with all of the pertinent information in a timely manner so they can make the best decisions.

It's the best way to avoid making a costly mistake. To dodge a bullet, so to speak.

In this instance, the School Board learned only two weeks before a crucial decision by the County Commission on the transaction that there were some mighty strong strings attached to the 150 acres they were about to acquire for more than $1-million.

The problem was that even after the sale, the site would still be considered part of the Betz Farm development of regional impact, and its use thus constrained by the rules governing how that proposed massive housing project will be built.

What, exactly, does that mean for the district? No one could give a complete answer. But a planner for the county raised this warning flag: If the district were ever to want to put, say, a new school on the site, it could deviate enough from the development plan to trigger a long, complicated and expensive state review of the entire project.

Who would shoulder the costs -- the developer? The district? Both? No one knew for certain.

With the housing project retaining the property's development rights, the district's options would be severely limited unless some major changes were made.

The district doesn't have immediate plans to put much more than athletic fields and parking lots on the site, but bricks and mortar certainly are in the future. Being joined at the hip with a housing development would take away much of the board's flexibility.

The board went looking for details, as did the administration (and this newspaper). At the urging of their attorney, the board hired a consultant to help them sort out the mess. Some board members contacted local land-use attorneys on their own for insight. Loads of head-scratching was going on, even as the clock was ticking.

Sometime in the last week or so, a solution bubbled up. The developer first said that if the board wanted out of the DRI, they could do so. Subsequent meetings yielded a better answer: The developer would give the district a big chunk of the traffic trips it was allowed under the DRI rules. This way, the district one day could build a school -- in fact, several schools -- on the site without putting more traffic onto nearby roads than the state allows.

Ta-da! The Gordian knot had been untangled!

The district officials were rightly relieved. On Tuesday, the School Board signed off on the deal. Just hours later, so did the County Commission.

Not content to take this victory with grace and humility, however, the board's attorney, Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick, couldn't resist telling both elected bodies that this newspaper had been incorrect in its reporting of the events of the last two weeks. We've known about this problem all the time, he told the boards. The outcome was never in doubt.

If that were true, however, why the need to hire an 11th-hour DRI consultant? Why would the developer offer to drop the district from the DRI? Why was the traffic transfer never mentioned until the final day? Why would the deal need to be changed at all?

The obvious answer is: Pride was at stake. Some people simply cannot admit that they're human and not infallible.

In the end, smart people did what you would want them to do. They identified an unexpected problem and crafted a solution fair to all parties. Bully for them!

Maybe the school leaders don't think so, but make no mistake: We, the taxpayers, dodged a bullet.

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