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This super snit needs an end

Published May 26, 2005

When it comes to bitter, frustrating fights, I'd rather watch a nice condo-board feud or a divorce-court battle than get bogged down in an annexation war. But the dispute scheduled - finally - to go to court today in Citrus County has been a rare beast.

Last year, the city of Crystal River added more than 520 acres south of the existing city. The biggest chunk of that land is the potential site of (now, don't be shocked by this) a Wal-Mart Supercenter along U.S. 19.

Crystal River says it was acting well within its powers. But the Citrus County government and a group of property owners are fighting the annexation in court. The two levels of government, both of them servants of the taxpayers, have absolutely refused to make peace.

You might have heard about this case. This is the one where a couple moved into a strip mall on U.S. 19, claiming it as their legal residence in an attempt to force a referendum. The city told its police to keep them under surveillance to try to prove they were faking it.

The case already is on its fourth judge, after the first three judges removed themselves for various reasons. You don't get the impression any of them were especially sorry to see it go, either.

My favorite of the recusals involved Judge Jack Springstead, supposedly because he might have been biased against the county. In a different case, Springstead had ruled against the county. A county commissioner therefore called him "a judge with marginal skills, unfamiliar with the subject matter, making bad law."

Judge No. 4, the one presiding today, is a retired guy named Richard G. Weinberg. He is coming in off the bench, as it were, as retired judges are allowed to do here and there. But if you think everybody is happy, think again - now it's Crystal River's turn to cry bias.

The city's attorney, David La Croix, previously referred to one of Weinberg's orders as "incomprehensible" and added that the judge "has a reputation of ruling on cases by his own standards and not based on the law and facts before him."

By the way, the annexation opponents also are trying to get La Croix kicked out as the city's lawyer. No luck so far.

The county and the private opponents each raise several legal challenges to Crystal River's decision on the basis of state annexation law. The county also alleges there is a harmful impact to the public airport, landfill, environment and so forth.

Carl Bertoch, lawyer for the private group, told me that among other things, state law requires annexations to be urbanized, compact properties.

"The city," Bertoch says, "seemed compelled to annex this property, come hell or high water."

The two sides aren't even in agreement over what power the judge holds. La Croix told me that the judge can reverse the annexation only if he finds the city acted without "competent evidence."

In other words, it's not enough for the challengers to say, "We don't like how they voted." La Croix believes they have to prove the city had no valid grounds at all for its decision - a tougher standard.

La Croix also points out that Crystal River got the approval of a majority of landowners, representing 75 percent of the annexed acres. As for the dissenting property owners, he says, they put themselves on the borders of the city to enjoy the benefits without paying taxes.

The county's resistance, La Croix alleges, "is about power ... power, plus the belief that "We can do everything better than those guys."'

I have no love for Wal-Mart, nor the Wal-Marting of America. Citrus County was rightly skeptical of the development's impact. Yet La Croix does have a point - there ought to be a tough standard for a judge to overturn a city's action, or else we might as well just get rid of cities and let judges decide everything.

It's too bad they didn't take an example from the U.S. Senate and reach a grown-up consensus. Instead, they have dug in their heels and will throw the taxpayers' dollars at each other to satisfy their own stubbornness. May the judge today be tough, fair - and impatient.

[Last modified May 26, 2005, 01:14:04]

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