Hernando County joins fight against citrus grower's private water system

BROOKSVILLE — A corporation with holdings in Hernando and Pasco counties that wants state approval for private utilities now faces opposition by both counties.

By giving the county attorney permission to enforce existing policies, the Hernando County Commission this week joined the formal opposition to the plan that Pasco County commissioners agreed to last week.

Skyland Utilities LLC filed a request in October for the state's Public Service Commission to approve new water and wastewater utilities.

Skyland is a subsidiary of Evans Properties, which is known for its extensive citrus groves.

Its request indicates the firm owns 791 acres in southeastern Hernando. The company also owns large tracts in northeast Pasco.

The application says the firm wants to provide utility service for agribusiness with a first phase starting next year. Residential development is also part of the proposal.

The plan sent up red flags for Hernando County's legal staff, since the county has historically sought to centralize water and sewer systems under the county's utilities.

Comprehensive land use plan issues also arise with providing utilities to a rural area such as where the Skyland properties are located, officials noted.

A memo from the county attorney's office to commissioners notes that prior boards have directed the staff to keep regulatory authority over all private utilities in the county.

It goes on to say that Hernando seeks to promote centralized utilities through the county's utility system, and opposes private providers from setting up in non-urbanized areas so the county can better avoid sprawl and protect ground-water resources.

"Staff intends to vigorously oppose the proposed application before the PSC and to use all means necessary to oppose the subject request,'' the memo concludes.

During Tuesday's Hernando commission meeting, assistant county attorney Jeff Kirk provided a synopsis of the nearly 800-page application the land owner filed with the state.

"We have legal concerns,'' he said, noting that there is even a question whether the PSC has jurisdiction.

County attorney Garth Coller asked if the commissioners were willing to let the legal staff do what it must to follow through with past policies of the county and formally oppose the application.

Commissioners agreed.

Ronald Edwards, president and chief executive officer of Evans Properties, said the company has no potential agribusinesses lined up. But as it transitions out of the citrus business, Evans has been looking for the next big thing in agriculture.

"We're merely, I hope, positioning ourselves for the future," Edwards said. "We're looking at a lot of different bio-energy crops to grow ourselves."

Those products include algae and oil-seed crops such as castor beans, he said.

That can be a water-intensive endeavor since, to cut down on transportation costs, the businesses would need to have processing plants on or near the site, Edwards said.

"We recognize that water is going to become an incredibly scare resource in Florida," he said. "There's no way we'd get utilities out there unless we do it ourselves."

The company also has proposed creating utilities in properties outside of Pasco and Hernando as well, he said, including those in St. Lucie, Indian River and Martin counties.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County joins fight against citrus grower's private water system 11/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 8:04pm]

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