BROOKSVILLE — Citrus grower Evans Properties says it isn't sure what it wants to do with its 4,000 acres but does know this: Whatever ends up there will need central water and sewer.
So the company formed a subsidiary called Skyland Utilities, which asked regulators for permission to offer water and sewer services to its properties in rural northeast Pasco and southeast Hernando counties.
But county and state officials, as well as local residents, say approving the request would be a big mistake.
At a Public Service Commission hearing Wednesday, they argued that the proposal could 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.
"Farmers who no longer desire to farm should not be able to usurp a public resource for a private gain," said Trilby resident Jill Yelverton.
The hearing was expected to continue today. The Public Service Commission staff is scheduled to make a recommendation by Sept. 16. The PSC is expected to vote on the matter on Sept. 28.
About 3,200 acres — or 80 percent of Evans' total property — is in Pasco. The land consists of old citrus groves and is now used mainly for grazing.
Much of the land is not contiguous, running instead in what one official called "checkerboard fashion." Only one of the parcels, totaling 437 acres, straddles the county line. That bi-county parcel allows Evans to argue that the Public Service Commission — and not either county's government — should have authority over the entire proposal.
Details are scare in the unusual case, primarily because the utility is proposed without anyone knowing how the lands will be developed. Under one scenario, a typical homeowner who might be part of a residential development on the properties would owe about $90 a month for water and wastewater service.
William Hollimon, a Tallahassee lawyer representing Pasco County government, said Skyland had failed to show the need. Currently, the land in Pasco, for instance, has only two homes with a barn.
"The standard for need has to be more than a letter from a landowner to itself asking for service," he said. "There has to be something there."
In both counties, current zoning would allow for very low density residential projects on the lands: one unit for every 10 acres, with some of the Pasco land also zoned for one unit for every 5 acres.
Both counties' comprehensive plans say future development in that area should continue to rely on private wells and septic tanks. The plans also discourage private utilities.
At the same time, Pasco officials say they have an existing water and wastewater system less than half a mile away and would step up to serve the area if needed.
The state Department of Community Affairs has also weighed in against the utility, saying the provision of services "will lead to premature conversion of rural agricultural land to urban uses and promote urban sprawl."
Skyland lawyer John Wharton called the sprawl argument a "red herring," saying that the real issue is that the counties have decided to keep out private utilities — something he said the Public Service Commission need not worry about.
He said he knew of no evidence that the presence of a newly certified utility itself directly led to sprawl, something he got a state planner to acknowledge under oath.
"If there are places where that's occurred," Wharton said, "it's because local officials allowed it to occur."
So what are the potential uses for the lands? Ron Edwards, the top official at both Skyland Utilities and Evans Properties, said in an interview that his top use would be for agri-businesses, possibly ones growing biofuel sources such as castor beans.
But a lot of that will depend on the market, specifically what kind of federal or state subsidies might be available, he said.
If the market wouldn't support an agricultural use, he said Monday, developing the land as residential projects, under current zoning, is another potential use.
Edwards has not ruled out an even more controversial use: selling bulk water to municipalities.
That lack of clarity about future uses bothered residents.
"What is their real reason?" asked Lacoochee resident Judy Geiger.
Hernando County resident Richard Radacki, who works for the city of Brooksville, said he thought he knew the real reason: Skyland wants to sell bulk water to other governments, such as Orlando.
"I believe that water may be targeted for Orlando," he said. "If the parcels are tied together, that would make one heck of a well field."
Wharton, the Skyland lawyer, dismissed that claim as "speculation."
Though none of the filings touch on the subject, Evans now is pitching Skyland as a possible way to solve another problem: about 200 contaminated wells in Hernando, including 16 that are within about a half mile of the Evans properties.
The company hired a public relations firm that put out news releases on Monday, touting Skyland's ability to help those people get off the wells and onto clean water, which Hernando has not offered to do.
"That just confirms the need for having a central water system," said Edwards.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.