Skyland Utilities is correct to dam up its request to pull groundwater from 4,000 acres of rural land in Pasco and Hernando counties.
On Friday, the subsidiary of Evans Properties withdrew its water and sewer utility application pending before the Florida Public Service Commission. Evans intends to reassess its Skyland proposal and "at the appropriate time, move forward with the utilization of its properties to maximize its resources consistent with the public interest,'' its attorney, John Wharton, wrote to the PSC.
That will be a welcome change since public interest had taken a back seat in much of the debate. Had the PSC given the green light to Skyland, it would have been a reward for subterfuge and the regulatory equivalency of shopping for a more sympathetic judge. Last month, the PSC agreed to defer Skyland's proposal after the commission's staff recommended denial of the application. The stall effectively precluded consumer-friendly Commissioner Nathan Skop — one of two commissioners to sit through the entire case — from participating in a final vote because his term expired Jan. 1.
Skyland's filings requesting the postponement amounted to an assault on the staff recommendation and an attempt to illegally argue the case after the close of hearings. In pushing for the delay, Skyland's attorney even moved from arguing law to providing testimony by offering his own observations about political turmoil at the PSC. Instead of being insulted, commissioners acquiesced to the nonsensical and disingenuous arguments and granted a delay.
More to the point, the legal maneuvering was meant to diminish the staff's analysis which said there is no need for a private utility in an agricultural area that had no immediate plans to develop. Pasco and Hernando counties, the city of Brooksville and the state Department of Community Affairs had objected to the Skyland proposal as unnecessary, contradictory to local land use plans and a potential precursor to sprawl.
The company had maintained water was a crop and it wanted to be well-positioned to profit from future groundwater pumping for either bio-fuel development or to simply market the water to other utilities or governments. That was disconcerting considering much of the Tampa Bay region uses desalination, a reservoir and surface water to limit groundwater withdrawals and to try to reverse environmental damage from past overpumping.
Likewise, the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority, serving Hernando, Citrus and two other counties, said its projections showed the potential for a significant reduction in the groundwater table, a depletion that would be exacerbated by certifying another utility in the area.
Skyland demonstrated no purpose for a utility on rural farmland other than to create the potential to hold local governments hostage over water rights or to export a dwindling natural resource. The PSC staff had it right; there is no public need and the application was premature.
Evans Properties can now demonstrate it has a clear understanding of public interest by using its land in a manner consistent with the rural protections afforded Northeast Pasco, while taking into account the Hernando concerns about its water supply and the near-universal worries about sprawl.