Attorney: Annexation attempt illegal

Oral arguments are made before a circuit court judge, who says he will make a ruling in the case by next week.

Published May 27, 2005

INVERNESS - The dueling continued Tuesday in the year-old battle over the legality of Crystal River's decision to annex 520 acres south of its city limits.

This time, however, the legal wrangling did not come in written motions but oral arguments before Senior Circuit Judge Richard Weinberg, who is scheduled to continue hearing the case today. Weinberg said he will sort out this tangle and issue a ruling as early as next week.

The opponents charged that the City Council did not follow state annexation law, violated the voting rights of two property owners, and illegally excluded the county and the public from voicing their objections to a portion of the city's annexation ordinance.

The council decision in April last year was an "illegal attempt" to annex 520 acres "a mile from its border," said Kent Safriet, a Tallahassee attorney representing property owners who oppose the annexation.

The council "trampled on the rights of the petitioners" and denied them "their constitutional right to vote on the annexation," Safriet said.

City Attorney David La Croix vehemently denied their charges, arguing that he, the City Council and city staff worked diligently and went to great lengths to ensure that the annexation complied with state laws.

La Croix then reminded Weinberg that the judge was only allowed to base his ruling on a review of the council's actions and the record generated from the public hearings on the annexation.

If the judge did that, Weinberg would have no choice but to side with the city, he said. The judge was not allowed to "review the wisdom of the city's decision," he said.

The daylong hearing Tuesday in the Citrus County Commission chambers was attended by City Council member and annexation opponent Susan Kirk, and council member and annexation supporter John Kendall.

Also in attendance was Scott Glass, an Orlando attorney representing RealtiCorp., a South Carolina developer which owns a large chunk of land that the city annexed and is proposing a residential and commercial development for the site, which sits along U.S. 19.

One of the chains mentioned for the site is Wal-Mart.

Safriet, who represents the Citizens Opposed to RealtiCorp Annexation, the property owner group, was up first at the hearing. The attorney representing Citrus County government, Michele Lieberman (formerly Slingerland), and Carl Bertoch, another CORA attorney, agreed with his arguments.

He said the city had to issue a substantive urban services report, ensure that the annexed land was "contiguous and compact" with the city, and provide due process for affected property owners if it wanted to meet the standards of the state annexation law.

He said the city did not do an adequate "urban services report," which is supposed to detail how the city would plan to provide services, such as fire, police, water and sewer, to the newly annexed land.

Safriet used water services as an example and said the city did not delineate in its report where future water main extensions might go, the feasibility of embarking on such a project, and how much it would cost.

During his oral argument later, La Croix said Safriet's charges were not true. He said both then-City Manager Susan Boyer and independent planners had testified that the city did indeed have a plan to provide these services.

Safriet also argued that the city's annexation violated state and case law because it created "pockets" and "enclaves." La Croix later said the opponents were incorrectly interpreting the state and case law, and defended the annexation's route.

In addition, Safriet argued that the council acted illegally when it determined that Rodger and Renee McPheeters were not legally registered voters despite the supervisor of elections saying that they were registered voters.

Safriet mentioned the city's use of city police to watch the store "six days and nights" to determine whether the McPheeters were actually residents at the store.

La Croix said city staff and the council went to great lengths to determine their residency and their voting status and were convinced that they were not legally allowed to live at the store and therefore allowed to vote.

Lieberman argued that the county was denied due process when La Croix presented to the council an amendment to the annexation ordinance after the council closed the public hearing.

The amendment was a "severability" clause which allowed the annexation to be preserved even if a court later determined that the McPheeters' were illegally denied their right to vote in a referendum.

If a court did rule that way, the annexation would go forward without the McPheeters' property.

Raghuram Vadarevu can be reached at rvadarevu@sptimes.com or 352 564-3627.