The way the Hernando County Commission spent $1 million to land bank a 4-acre parcel for a future road is no way to govern. In approving the transaction, the commission put the transportation needs of future residents ahead of safety concerns for current motorists.
These skewed priorities allowed the county to pay an inflated price for the vacant land, help deplete an impact fee account that could have been used for more pressing needs, and earned a $30,000 commission for politically influential Realtor Gary Schraut.
It's a dubious deal defended by commissioners as a bargain that will avoid the potential for pricier land-buying in the future. Certainly, nobody wants a repeat of the Elgin Boulevard widening that wrapped up in 2012 when poor planning forced the county to pay unexpected and exorbitant right-of-way costs to acquire or move 30 homes from the construction route. But this land deal lacks accountability and is an affront to good government.
Done in a mostly clandestine manner without prior approval from commissioners, it allowed the county staff and the private sector to set public road-building priorities. And it turns the county into a real estate speculator hoping to recoup part of the investment by selling excess land not required for road construction. Anybody stuck with unwanted and overpriced property in the past six years knows the danger of that strategy.
Here's how this came about: Commissioners, with only Diane Rowden dissenting, blessed a transaction last week in which the county will spend $1 million for 4 acres on the north side of State Road 50 for the northward extension of California Street — a route that doesn't show up on the county's road-building map until 2035. Commissioners eagerly acquiesced even though outside appraisals valued the land at a maximum of $865,000.
Meanwhile, the county lacks construction money to fix one of its most dangerous intersections — Mariner Boulevard at SR 50, the scene of 50 traffic accidents in a three-year period ending in 2011. That ranked the congested spot as the second most dangerous intersection in the county.
Rowden called it a "death trap,'' and the county's own transportation plans show it is a problematic area complicated by traffic circulating among shopping centers north and south of the intersection. A $5 million improvement plan is being designed, but the county lacks money for construction.
The county has even less now. The $1 million land buy is being financed with the same pool of transportation impact fees that could have been used for the Mariner Boulevard improvements. Don't expect the pot to be replenished any time soon. Commissioners have waived collection of transportation impact fees — one-time assessments on new construction to account for added traffic demands — until August 2014, at which point a greatly discounted fee, less than half of what a consultant recommended, will go into effect.
A commission majority of David Russell, Wayne Dukes, Jim Adkins and Nick Nicholson wrongly pat themselves on the back for astute long-range transportation planning. They would better serve the public if they fixed a dangerous intersection instead of planning yet another northern route to Citrus County.
And if they truly wanted to demonstrate a transportation vision, they'd be making sure those impact fees were replaced at an accelerated pace.