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Column

Developers' brash plans deserve to be declined

By GREG HAMILTON
Published September 1, 2004

Give them credit for trying, at least.

A couple of land speculators last week floated two deals that are so incredibly brazen that the proponents must be either crazy or desperate or both.

One offer was dead on arrival, while another remains on life support. The truly amazing aspect is that both deals were expected to be taken seriously.

F. Blake Longacre, who rolled the dice in 2001 by paying about $500,000 for 11 acres along the Halls River, is trying to unload the parcel now that a judge's ruling has squashed his visions of waterfront condos on the site.

As a result of the court's actions (an important distinction we will get to later), there is not a whole lot Longacre can do with the property. He can build a big honkin' house if he likes, but that is not likely to be much of a return on his investment.

Thus, the developer came up with what he called a sweetheart deal for Citrus County. Because he thinks so highly of the county commissioners, he made them a limited-time offer: For the bargain-basement price of only $2.35-million, or nearly five times what Longacre paid, the county could relieve him of his combination headache and money pit.

Why, you may ask, would the county even consider such an offer? Because, Longacre explained, replacing the carrot with a stick, if the county doesn't pay up, he will be forced to file a lawsuit against it.

So what if Longacre's chances of actually winning such a suit approximate those of a snowball in Hades? The mere threat of a suit was supposed to send commissioners scrambling for the county's checkbook. Fortunately, the commissioners showed him the exit and advised him not to let the swinging door leave an imprint on his posterior.

Longacre's threatened actions would come under a state law saying that a property owner can sue the government, in this case Citrus County, if that government's actions reduced the owner's development rights and property value.

In the Halls River Retreat case, however, the commissioners voted in favor of his project. It was a judge who overturned the decision, killing the project. And he can't sue the judge.

The county has since changed the zoning on his property, in response to the court ruling and to bring it into compliance with the state's wishes. When Longacre asked to have the acreage rezoned to allow the condo project, the county voted against him.

The commission's decision, however, is not a basis for a lawsuit. Rezoning proposals are just that, requests, and the government is not obligated to grant every rezoning bid. That would sort of wipe out the need for zoning laws in the first place.

As loony as Longacre's proposal is, even wackier is his sales pitch. Calling it a "remarkable" offer that will let the county walk away with a steal, the speculator figures that he would net "about 50 cents an hour for my time." Gee, $2.35-million. That's a whole lot of 50-cent hours.

Almost as goofy is the trade that RealtiCorp has offered to the Army Corps of Engineers. RealtiCorp, owners of prime swampland along U.S. 19, wants to swap the swamp, essentially, for 170 acres elsewhere.

We'll buy 170 acres west of U.S. 19 and north of the Crystal River city limits, the company said, and give it to the government for preservation. In exchange, you let us fill in the swamp and build a small city.

As any real estate agent will tell you, not all land is the same. The 13 acres of wetlands along the highway, for instance, are crucial to the health of the Crystal River. They are part of the lungs of the river.

The 170 acres, by contrast, are in an area where development is unlikely to ever occur. Think of it this way: If that land had any real development potential, the great minds on the Crystal River City Council would have annexed it along with RealtiCorp's swampland when they performed their "manifest destiny" act earlier this year.

RealtiCorp, which needs to pave over the wetlands to squeeze every last dime out of its investment, is trying to get a Mona Lisa in exchange for 170 velvet Elvises. The company was lucky once when it snookered the City Council, but not everyone is that naive. This time, it will be a tougher sell.

The massive development that is envisioned for the 13 acres of wetlands will be detrimental enough to the environment and to the quality of life in that part of Citrus County without filling in an essential filter for the Crystal River.

The Army Corps of Engineers should be able to see through this ruse and tell RealtiCorp thanks, but no thanks.

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:09:34]

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