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Skyland withdraws controversial utility plan in Pasco, Hernando counties

DADE CITY — A citrus grower on Friday withdrew a controversial proposal to sell water and wastewater in rural northeast Pasco and southeast Hernando counties.

The Evans Properties subsidiary, Skyland Utilities, withdrew its application from the Florida Public Service Commission, just four days before the commission was scheduled to vote on the matter.

Skyland proposed serving land that Evans Properties owns, about 4,000 acres in the two counties. That land — about 80 percent of it is in Pasco — consists of old citrus groves and is now used mainly for grazing.

As Evans Properties transitions out of the citrus business, it has been trying to use its large land holdings to position itself for the future. Company officials have said the water and wastewater facilities could serve a potential agribusiness as well as new residential and commercial development on its parcels.

Last month, the commission staff released an 86-page recommendation that said Skyland "did little to demonstrate real and immediate need for service within this requested territory."

Skyland lawyer John Wharton said in the notice of withdrawal that his client took issue with that recommendation but intended to "reassess its utility and, at the appropriate time, move forward with the utilization of its properties to maximize its resources in a manner consistent with the public interest."

Environmentalists and public officials in both counties have fought the proposal, arguing 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.

Richard Riley, an east Pasco activist, was caught off guard by the sudden withdrawal of the application.

"I'm flabbergasted," he said Friday afternoon. "I thought they'd go down to the wire."

He was also pleased.

"I'm really glad they seem to have anticipated a rejection by the PSC based upon the recommendation by their staff," he said.

"This will help protect northeast Pasco and southeast Hernando."

Wharton, the Skyland lawyer, did not immediately return a phone message late Friday afternoon.

But Ron Edwards, president of the Vero Beach-based Evans Properties, wrote a letter recently published in the St. Petersburg Times that said the application "is in the crosshairs of frustrated local governments, cynical media and a transitioning Public Service Commission."

"While Evans could provide some of these water services now, having a regulated and certificated utility, with the associated public scrutiny, makes us a better candidate for environmental services contracts with water control and water management districts, local governments and agricultural interests," Edwards wrote. "It provides more favorable financing opportunities for the expensive infrastructure investments that are needed — ones that government and taxpayers can't afford — all the while providing the transparency that the public desires in a water partner."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Skyland withdraws controversial utility plan in Pasco, Hernando counties 01/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 8:15pm]

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