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Lower lake levels, lower taxes, homeowners say

Spring Hill residents tell the county that their dry lakes should mean a drop in their property tax assessments.

[Times photo: Duglas R. Clifford]
Joe Cosenza, 75, left, and neighbor Gene Laveroni, 65, are upset that Lake Theresa has receded from their lakefront property on Waterfall Drive in Spring Hill. Cosenza said he hasn't been able to launch his boat from the dock in more than two years.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


When Jennifer Sullivan and her family moved to Spring Hill in 1995, her children could boat across Lake Theresa to a small island where they liked to fish.

Sullivan's son and his friends now ride dirt bikes across the bone-dry lake bed. Spring Hill's other lakes are equally blue on the map and waterless in reality.

And the people who live alongside the so-called waterfront property are fed up. More than 30 filled the Hernando County Commission chambers Tuesday to ask for some relief.

"This is not what we should be calling, and assessing for tax purposes, lakefront property," Sullivan told commissioners.

Commissioners, who set the county tax rate but not property values, told the group that they did not have all the answers. They invited the residents to attend a pending workshop on water-related issues, at which representatives from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Property Appraiser's Office will speak.

The date for that meeting is not set.

"It will be good for us to be informed on this too," Chairman Chris Kingsley said.

Nick Nikkinen, chief deputy property appraiser, said that although waterfront property generally has a higher value than landlocked property, the assessments are reached the same for each.

"We come up with a value and test it against the market sales in the area," Nikkinen said. "People get really concerned about what we code (land) as. Ultimately, the test is whether we have exceeded the general market value."

The appraiser's office does not have a formula that sets waterfront property values at a certain percentage higher than comparable inland homes, he said. Neither does the county have a separate tax rate for waterfront homes.

"There's no hard and fast rule," Nikkinen said. "It's whatever the market dictates. We don't create the market; we reflect it."

Residents insist they will press the matter. They said they think the water to the lakes has been capped off, and they do not want to pay higher tax bills while living alongside dusty lake beds.

"We're being taxed for lakes that are not in existence," said Elsie Puzio, who lives near Lake Theresa.

"Somebody has been trying to get this across to the county for years, but it's been ignored," added Gene Laveroni, Puzio's neighbor. "We've got a new group. . . . We're going to get something done about it."

Sullivan, who works with the Florida Green Party, spurred the turnout at Tuesday's commission meeting by sending fliers to Spring Hill homes that sit next to dry lakes. The typewritten page encouraged people to demand answers from the commission about where the water has gone and why neighbors are still paying taxes as if it existed.

"We're trying to stop urban sprawl and trying to get citizens to be active and take their future into their own hands," Sullivan explained. "We're just trying to get people together to realize there is something they can do about this. . . . No one was taken seriously when they called in individually."

This issue is not new, and the appraiser's office has dealt with it in the past.

In the early 1990s, the appraiser's office decreased the assessed values of more than 2,000 Spring Hill homes that backed dried-up lakes and canals. The average decrease was $1,127 per lot.

Some residents worried in the late '90s that their values would increase after El Nino storms temporarily filled the lakes. The appraiser's office did not make any drastic changes.

In 1999, several pushed for a weed control program. They contended they pay premium taxes and deserve special waterfront services.

Last year, one resident challenged the value of his home near Hunter's Lake because, he said, there's no water in the lake. The Value Adjustment Board did not change the assessment, based in part upon Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek's assertion that the situation was taken into consideration.

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