No wonder Halls River developer is licking his chops

Published November 3, 2005

Developer Blake Longacre of Halls River Retreat fame is back in the news. Apparently, he's suing Citrus County under the Bert Harris Act for $3.5-million because he claims that he was denied permission to build condo palaces anywhere he chooses.

What he's trying to do is to bluff the county into some kind of settlement to which he's not entitled. You can't blame him for trying, not when he sees the sack of illegal settlement candy the county just handed to the heirs of the Caruth estate in a somewhat similar claim last week. It's an astonishing story, but understanding it requires a little prologue.

Once upon a time, amid all the codes county planners use to designate various land uses, there was a catch-all category called mixed use, or MXU, which allowed, among other things, the potential for high-density development in places where the Citrus County Comprehensive Plan said such things should not happen.

In 1997, the state asked the county to account for the vested status of the properties designated with this contentious code, which led the county to eliminate MXU from the comprehensive plan.

Property owners adversely affected by this could have challenged the county's action at the time. If an administrative challenge failed, they then had one year to seek financial relief under the Bert Harris Act. Nobody stepped forward.

For reasons known only to the gods of mismanagement, however, the county retained this MXU designation in its Land Use Atlas. This led some people to think they could still create high-density developments in these areas.

It was this erroneous assumption that the courts came down on in the Halls River Retreat case. The courts, with support of the state, underscored that when the county land use codes and its comprehensive plan conflict, actions taken in regard to development orders by a local government body must be consistent with the comprehensive plan.

After the Halls River ruling, the County Commission in 2002 passed an ordinance eliminating the MXU designation. The attorney representing Caruth in the Harris claim spoke in favor of this ordinance; an attorney for Longacre spoke in opposition.

Any affected property owner could have administratively challenged the ordinance at the time, but neither Caruth's agent nor Longacre stepped forward.

One year later, the heirs of the 70-acre Caruth estate along the Withlacoochee River in northwest Citrus filed a Bert Harris claim maintaining that dropping the MXU designation on their property had denied them a potential fortune in development potential.

This claim was all but empty for several legal reasons, and the county was duty-bound to tell them so. Yet for some inexplicable reason, the county legal staff chose to hire an outside law firm to negotiate a settlement. This is the bewildering equivalent of winning a war and then negotiating the terms of your own surrender.

Last week, the terms of this settlement were placed in front of the County Commission, which approved it 4-1. The settlement allows a subdivision of 50 homes on the 70 acres. It was characterized by one commissioner as a "win-win" situation. So, what's so wrong with the settlement? Just about everything.

First, the land sits in an area designated coastal, lakes and rivers, where new planned developments (subdivisions) of less than 160 acres are prohibited by law.

Second, the land sits within 5 miles of the Progress Energy complex in Crystal River, which contains a nuclear reactor. Any property within this radius cannot be developed at a density greater than one house per 5 acres, regardless of its land use designation.

Third, the land use designation is coastal lakes, the most stringent there is, which limits planned development to one unit per 20 acres and requires a minimum 160-acre property.

Fourth, the statute of limitations (under which this Bert Harris claim was filed) ran out five years earlier. But even if a mixed use designation were still in effect instead of coastal lakes, the 5-mile nuclear zone radius would still have limited the property's development to 14 houses, not the 50 houses so generously conceded in the settlement.

But far and away the biggest problem with this settlement is the unspeakable silence from the county development staff, as one piece of wrong information after another was presented. When Caruth attorney Clark Stillwell said he personally measured the property (using an aerial photo) and found it to be 5.1 miles from the nuclear plant, where was the challenge from Development Services Director Gary Maidhof, who knows this assertion to be wildly incorrect? The nuclear plant's safety information guide shows the entire parcel to be well inside 5 miles, as do precisely accurate U.S. Geological Survey maps.

When Robert Williams, hired by the county for this case, said the appellate courts never reviewed the MXU issue, where were the challenges from County Attorney Robert Batista and County Administrator Richard Wesch?

In fact, the appellate court most certainly did consider this issue. It was part of the first Halls River lawsuit, and the Circuit Court included it in the ruling. The state submitted a 12-page brief to the appeals court supporting the Circuit Court's finding.

Our commissioners can only trust that the information supplied to them by the staff is accurate, honest and forthright. Too often, there is no such guidance. Too often, we have a conspiracy of silence. How fortuitous for our planning and legal staffs that these commissioners apparently never grow weary of it.

Allowing a law-defying 50-home subdivision in the coastal lakes area is a win for the developer only. More like a triple win. Permitting 300 percent more density than was ever permitted inside the 5-mile nuclear radius is not a settlement; it is an extravagant, thoroughly unnecessary gift.

Is it any wonder speculators from all over the state are lifting their heads from the chewed remains of counties like Pasco and fixing their gaze on Citrus County with a fresh new appetite?

Is it any wonder Blake Longacre is back among us, rubbing his hands and licking his chops?

Jim Nicoll is a Homosassa resident. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do no necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.