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Site of Southern Pines Condominiums pitched for new judicial center

BROOKSVILLE — The sales brochure described a luxury condominium project "in an urban garden setting" — secure buildings, balconies and attractive amenities, including a fitness center, heated jacuzzi and two stocked lakes with lakeside barbecue grills.

The housing bust stalled plans to complete and fill the condo buildings.

Now, the 39-acre site of the Southern Pines Condominiums is being pitched to the Hernando County Commission. It would make "an excellent location for the future judicial center with plenty of room to accommodate other county services such as the proposed utilities administrative office,'' according to an email sent to commissioners by real estate broker Buddy Selph.

For just $3.8 million, the county could purchase one condominium building filled with unfinished units, plus the finished clubhouse. Another $330,000 would buy another condo building. The site is on the south side of Cortez Boulevard, on the west edge of Brooksville.

But the county has no plans to build the long-talked-about judicial center.

The idea fell out of favor last year after the community questioned whether there was really a need for more courtrooms.

In a survey in early 2011, the Times found that Hernando County courtrooms were vacant about 60 percent of the time. Around the same time, the County Commission agreed to take $5 million from the county's judicial fund to pay for cost overruns on the Hernando Beach Channel dredge.

Commissioners this year are considering using a portion of the $7 million still socked away in the fund to balance the county's 2012-13 budget.

Officials said last week that whenever the county talks about what to do with the remaining money in the fund, potential sellers pop up looking for a share of the pot.

"I admire Buddy's entrepreneur spirit,'' Commissioner Dave Russell said of the offer of the condo project.

Russell noted that county government has downsized to the point that additional office space is not needed.

"The most pressing issue we have is getting our budget under control,'' he said.

One thing the discussion of the judicial fund has reignited is an idea proposed by previous County Administrator David Hamilton to convert the old courtroom in the historic 1913 courthouse into the commission chambers and the current commission chambers into a courtroom.

Hamilton's proposal would have moved more of the court functions into the east side of the government center, opening up more of the historic building for basic county services.

While commissioners John Druzbick and Jeff Stabins said they believed those plans were abandoned last year, commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he has been talking with Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., who is retiring at the end of the year.

Merritt still wants to see the plan go forward, and Dukes said the county staff has continued to investigate the idea. But Dukes, like the other commissioners, said a freestanding judicial center is off the table.

While the county has $7 million that had been set aside for the project, Merritt also has almost $5 million that must be spent on judicial needs. And Russell pointed out that, if the judges decide they need more space, they can issue bonds for a project, pledging $600,000 a year in court fees to pay off the loan.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said he wasn't aware that Merritt was still looking to add judicial space.

"I don't want to spend money buying something when the need is being satisfied,'' Adkins said.

Dukes said one of the ongoing issues for the judges is their desire for a new secure entrance into the courthouse. He said Merritt wants to use full-size buses to transport inmates to the center for court appearances and has expressed an interest in building a secure entrance for that purpose.

But even if some of those plans become a reality, the county has more money set aside than Merritt needs, Dukes said, and that money could be used, avoiding the need for an increase in the property tax rate.

Dukes said he likes the idea of better utilizing the old courthouse, and the staff is still working through issues such as lead and asbestos.

He said he wants all of the details of what the proposal would entail to be completed by early September so the commission can make a decision on what it wants to do prior to public hearings on the 2012-13 budget.

As for Selph's property offer, Dukes said, "I'm not interested in buying and building anything.''

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

Site of Southern Pines Condominiums pitched for new judicial center 08/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 9:17pm]

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