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State should reject citrus grower's plan to start new water utility

The public is ill-served by allowing a citrus grower to start a new water utility for its 4,000 acres of rural land in Pasco and Hernando counties. The Florida Public Service Commission should reject this speculative business venture that has drawn widespread criticism from nearby residents, local governments and state planners.

The PSC's own staff this week came to that same logical conclusion after collecting testimony at July hearing. The state Department of Community Affairs and Pasco and Hernando county governments previously objected to the plan to allow a privately held central water and sewer company in an agricultural area that has no immediate plans to develop.

The company, Skyland Utilities, a subsidiary of Evans Properties, has not specified how the water and sewer capacity would be used. It has suggested its land in northeast Pasco and southwest Hernando could be targeted for agri-business by growing bio-fuel sources, but such a venture would be dependent upon market demands and government subsidies. Other alternatives include developing the land residentially even though zoning laws in both counties mandate low density (as little as one home for every 10 acres) that would not require central water and sewer. The residential concept contradicts the land-use plans in both Hernando and Pasco and raises legitimate concerns a functioning utility would be a precursor to sprawl in an area ill-fitted to handle large-scale development.

Most disconcerting, the lack of specificity also brings suspicion the real intent is to market the water to governments outside the region. Since the company declined to rule out that option, regulators should presume it to be a realistic alternative. That is an uncomfortable proposition considering the area's history of environmental damage from overpumped well fields.

The company's tactics haven't instilled public confidence either. It asked for a PSC franchise instead of dealing with the individual counties even though only one 437-acre parcel straddles the line dividing Pasco and Hernando. It also offered the dubious spin that the private utility is necessary to aid people with tainted private wells in Hernando.

The application also comes as Pasco continues its several-year quest to acquire private utilities through the Florida Governmental Utility Authority. Private utilities have a dismal track record in Pasco County and the state should be leery of authorizing new franchises after years of listening to customer complaints about poor service and inferior water quality.

There is simply no need for a new water and sewer utility in rural Pasco and Hernando counties. Even if there was a legitimate customer base to serve, Pasco's nearby facilities would be adequate to handle the demand.

This application is nothing more than a case of a private company looking for Tallahassee's blessing of a venture it knows it can't get approved locally. Where is the public interest in that?

State should reject citrus grower's plan to start new water utility 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 1:11pm]
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