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County responds to lawsuit

Attorneys say the move made by landowners arguing against fees for a community center isn't a class-action issue.

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published March 13, 2007


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CITRUS SPRINGS - Bridge clubs, baton classes, dances and community meetings have all found a home in the community center here.

But a group of landowners is still sparring with the county over who should pay the $2-million bill for building the 13,295-square-foot facility. They sued the county in 2004, claiming fees levied by the county to pay for construction of the center and other projects in Citrus Springs are unfair - only benefiting residents, not absentee landowners.

This month, county attorneys fired back.

In a memorandum filed in Citrus County Circuit Court, they argued that the group's leader, James D. Ownby of Volusia County, is suing "for his own financial interests." And they said the case does not meet the requirements of a class-action suit.

"That's an absolutely false allegation," Tampa attorney Mike Peacock said Monday. "I represent a class of people. He Ownby isn't the one who stands to benefit from this."

Peacock said he would file a response to the county's claim next month.

The case provides a new spin on an issue that has plagued Citrus County for years: how to pay for growth fairly.

At issue is the Citrus Springs Municipal Services Benefit Unit, or MSBU. Homeowners pay $25 annually, and vacant lot owners pay $20 for various improvements to the development.

County attorneys argue that a majority of landowners in Citrus Springs support the annual fees levied. They claim that Ownby has "serious conflicts of interest" and has used the lawsuit to solicit contributions and newsletter subscriptions. For $45 annually, absentee landowners can join his Citrus Springs Landowner's Association.

They also claim that services paid for by the MSBU fees - including the community center, road improvements and street lights - provided a clear benefit to the property for all landowners.

The county's memorandum also includes excerpts from depositions of several county officials, including former County Commissioner Jim Fowler and County Commissioner Gary Bartell.

In his deposition, Fowler described the community's reaction after commissioners approved the new MSBU in 1994.

"The place was packed," he said. "And there was a wild, standing ovation at the end of the meeting because the (County Commission) had agreed to enact the MSBU to help them revive their community."

But Peacock said Monday that most of the services provided by the fees only benefit residents of Citrus Springs.

He said the county's claim that most landowners support the fees is "inaccurate." Peacock said he represents a group of absentee owners who plan to retire to Florida someday.

"These are not the people using the community center today - and they do not want to pay for it today," he said.

Absentee landowners, he said, "have suddenly found themselves paying a fee that doesn't provide any direct value to the land."

And he pointed to a case in Marion County, where an appellate court ruled that a community center could not be funded through a similar taxing method.

County attorneys argue that the Marion County case is significantly different.

But Peacock disagrees.

"The issue is relatively clear here. ... The facts and the law seem to both be in our favor," Peacock said.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.

The issue

Judge sets date

Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas will consider making James D. Ownby's case a class-action lawsuit at 1 p.m. May 17 in the Citrus County Courthouse, 110 N Apopka Ave., Inverness.

[Last modified March 12, 2007, 21:15:35]


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