TALLAHASSEE — Legislation headed to the Senate floor would let large landowners sell water and wastewater on their properties without having to first prove the services are needed.
Sound familiar to Pasco and Hernando? It should: The wording was added at the request of a citrus grower who had wanted to offer the services in rural areas of the two counties but got slapped down by Public Service Commission staff.
Critics say the landowner, Evans Properties, is trying to make a run-around to get its plan approved. Commission staff recommended against the plan on the basis that Evans had not demonstrated the water services were needed for the undeveloped property.
"My take as a former regulator is that this basically undoes the primary reason the staff rejected it," said Nathan Skop, a former member of the Public Service Commission.
Evans last year created a subsidiary, Skyland Utilities, and had asked the PSC for permission to start a water and wastewater system for 4,000 undeveloped acres it owns in rural Pasco and Hernando counties.
Evans had no specific development plans but said the land could be the future home of an agribusiness or residential and commercial projects. The company withdrew its proposal in January rather than face a potential rejection by the board.
Instead, Evans officials, who did not return a call for comment, met with Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is pushing sweeping growth management legislation.
Bennett confirmed Thursday that he agreed to add the language to his bill in March after hearing from Evans but said it could apply to other landowners and fits in with the overall philosophy of his measure. He said the wording would let developers be more proactive in their planning.
"It's very difficult for a developer to wait for the need," he said.
Bennett's bill also contains an amendment from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, that could let a controversial landfill proposed for east Pasco be built over the objections of commissioners. Bennett said that language would be removed.
The Evans proposal was fought heavily by Pasco and Hernando county officials, who argued it would lead to sprawling development in the picturesque areas, violate long-term growth plans and allow a private company to put at risk a public resource — groundwater.
"Private ownership of these public utilities in the past has demonstrated not to be as good as ownership from the public," Pasco Commissioner Ted Schrader said.
The House version of the growth management legislation does not contain the references to Evans.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he would offer up two amendments to kill both the provisions for utilities and the one related to the landfill.
"The language would be detrimental to Pasco County," he said.
The companies in both cases "circumvented the permitting process and put the language in a huge bill."
Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 933-1321.