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County: Former judge asking too much for land

Hillsborough could use the land to avoid the Tampa mayor's annexation plans.

Earlier this year, former Hillsborough Chief Judge Guy W. Spicola sent county officials a letter about 46 acres of land he and his wife own in New Tampa. He offered to sell the county the land for $1.6-million.

"I am sure that Hillsborough's staff is familiar with the property," Spicola said in his letter.

How could they not be? The land sits in the middle of Mayor Dick Greco's plans to annex an even bigger piece of the county's diminishing territory in New Tampa.

The acquisition would make it legally difficult for Greco to annex a far larger prize to the north that his aides have been eyeing: the 2,300-acre K-Bar Ranch. If the county owned Spicola's land, any plans by the city to annex the K-Bar Ranch would create an island, or "enclave" of unincorporated county land surrounded by city land, which is prohibited by state law.

Since the city annexed 936 acres next to Spicola's land last year, county officials have been looking for ways to stop Greco. Buying Spicola's property might allow the commission to do just that.

County officials have decided that Spicola's $1.6-million asking price is too high and have offered to pay $600,000. Two firms told county officials that Spicola's land was worth $810,000 and $700,000.

The two sides have not reached any agreement yet. Spicola did not respond to two phone calls and a faxed letter from the Times seeking comment.

Last year, commissioners were furious with Greco for luring away the developers of a new subdivision in New Tampa named Heritage Isles. The county had been negotiating a deal with the developers just as Greco stepped in.

On Wednesday, the county's latest plan took Greco by surprise. He said he did not know that the county had offered to buy Spicola's land.

"Why would they want to do that?" Greco asked.

Both governments have the same motive for battling over territory in New Tampa: new tax revenues. The area has become one of the fast-growing neighborhoods for new homes, which add new property tax dollars to government budgets.

"I think the city of Tampa would be willing to annex New Tampa up to Pasco County _ or up to Tennessee if they could," Hillsborough County Administrator Dan Kleman said.

Even though the county won't buy Spicola's land at his asking price, commissioners said the issue shows how valuable land in New Tampa has become. A county report released Wednesday said the city committed $4-million in spending on roads and utilities last year to woo the developers of Heritage Isles.

"There is a bidding war going on," Commissioner Jim Norman said. "And the taxpayers are getting killed."

_ Times Staff Writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.