BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Commissioner Jim Adkins recently saw a map of the sprawling Royal Highlands subdivision that gave him pause.
Commissioners look at maps all the time, but this one was different. It showed blue shading on numerous lots, shading that indicated ownership by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Adkins started asking questions.
The parcels had been bought up over time by land acquisition programs designed to establish wildlife corridors and recharge areas for the aquifer. But while Swiftmud picked up property at bargain prices in the 1990s, development quickened in the years that followed. That left a lot of individual, isolated lots in public ownership.
In 2011, Swiftmud announced it would sell 261,000 acres of natural land that it owns districtwide and has moved slowly ahead on that plan.
On Tuesday, at the urging of Adkins and with strong support from his colleagues, the Hernando commission agreed to encourage Swiftmud to move quickly to sell the lots it does not need for larger wildlife tracts or for water protection.
Adkins said it made no sense to him that some of the lots scattered throughout Royal Highlands are helping with Swiftmud's environmental protection goals. He said he was told there were more than 2,300 acres in Royal Highlands alone that could be purchased by private citizens. Other commissioners talked about the possibility of Swiftmud giving parcels to the county for drainage, road rights of way, parks or other public uses.
One way the sales could help county residents is on road-paving projects. In the past, as residents have come forward to have their lime rock roads paved, some projects have run into a stumbling block.
Swiftmud owned numerous lots on their streets, and the agency was not required to pay the assessment that all others with property abutting the road had to pay. That meant higher assessments for residents.
The road-paving projects have grown more popular, especially in Royal Highlands, after the county changed the rules, making it easier to get approval for projects.
"That's an undue burden on owners out there,'' said county Commissioner Nick Nicholson, a member of the Hernando County task force for Swiftmud's waterways restoration council.
That group talked about the isolated Swiftmud properties at a meeting earlier this month. "At one point in time,'' Nicholson said, "they were trying to buy property to create a corridor, but that corridor is not going to happen.''
Commission Chairman Dave Russell said that he wanted to see most of the sites go into private ownership "to help with (property) taxes.''
While one resident urged commissioners to put all pending paving projects in the area on hold to see if residents could get some relief on the assessment, Russell suggested simply urging quick action by Swiftmud.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes urged caution on that front. He said that lots in Royal Highlands are not selling fast. Commissioners plan to take a formal vote on the issue later this month.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.